Posts Tagged ‘science’

On the Height of a Field

January 1, 2013

This is a short story about belief and evidence, and it starts with the GPS watch I use when I go for a run. Here’s the plot of my elevation today:

runElevation

It looks a little odd until I show you this map of the run:

runMap

Each bump on the elevation plot is one lap of the field. In the middle, I changed directions, giving the elevation chart an approximate mirror-image symmetry. (I don’t know what causes the aberrant spikes, but my friend reports seeing the same thing on his watch.)

According to the GPS data, the field is sloped, with a max height of 260 feet near the center field wall and 245 feet near home plate. It’s insistent on this point, reiterating these numbers each time I do the run (except once when the tracking data was clearly off, showing me running across parking lots and through nearby buildings.) I disagreed, though. The field looked flat, not sloped at 3 degrees. I was disappointed to have found a systematic bias in the GPS data.

But I occasionally thought of some minor consideration that impacted my belief. I remembered that when I went biking, I often found that roads that look flat are actually uphill, as can be verified by changing directions and feeling how much easier it becomes to go a given pace. I Googled for the accuracy of GPS elevation data, and found that it’s only good to about 10 meters. But I didn’t care about absolute elevation, only change across the field, and I couldn’t find any answers on the accuracy of that. (Quora failed me.) I checked Google Earth, and it corroborated the GPS, saying the ground was 241 ft behind home plate and 259 in deep center field. But then I read that the GPS calibrated its elevation reading by comparing latitude/longitude coordinates with a database, and so may have been drawing from the same source as Google Earth.

People wouldn’t make a sloped baseball field, would they? That would dramatically change the way it plays, since with a 15-foot gain, what was once a solid home run becomes a catch on the warning track. Googling some more, I found that baseball fields can be pretty sloped; the requirements are fairly lax, and in fact they are typically sloped to allow drainage.

I was starting to doubt my initial judgment, and with this in mind, when I looked at the field, it made more and more sense that it’s sloped. Along the right field fence, there’s a short, steep hill leading up to the street. It’s about five feet high and at least a 30-degree slope. It’s completely unnatural, as if it exists because the field as a whole used to be considerably more sloped, but was dug out and flattened. The high edge of the field was then below street level, so there’s that short, steep hill leading up. And if the field was dug out and flattened, maybe they didn’t flatten it all the way. The entire campus is certainly sloped the same general direction as the GPS claimed for the field. It drops about 70 feet from north to south, and it’s frequently noticeable as you walk or bike around. There’s another field I run on with essentially the same deal, and I found that when I knew what to look for, I could indeed see the slope there.

Eventually, the speculation built up enough to warrant a little effort to make a measurement. I asked a wise man what to do, and he suggested I find a protractor, hang a string down to detect gravity, and site from one side of the field to the other. I did so, expecting to feel the boldness of an impartial, truth-seeking scientific investigator as I strode across the grass. That wasn’t what I got at all.

First, I felt continuous fluctuations in my confidence. “I’m 60% confident I’ll find the field is sloped,” I told myself, then immediately changed it to 75, not wanting to be timid, then felt afraid of being wrong, and went back to 50. I’ve played The Calibration Game and learned what beliefs mean, and mostly what it’s done is give me the ability to not only be uncertain about things, but to be meta-uncertain as well – not sure just how uncertain I am, since I don’t want to be wrong about that!

Second, I felt conflicting desires. I couldn’t decide what I wanted the result to be. I wanted the field to be flat to validate my initial intuition, not the stupid GPS, but I also wanted the field to be sloped so I could prove to myself my ability to change my beliefs when the evidence comes in, even if it goes against my ego. (A strange side-effect of wanting to believe true things is that you find yourself wanting to do things not because they help you believe the truth, but because you perceive them to be the sort of things that truth-seekers would do.) I recalled a video I had seen years ago about Gravity Probe B, and the main thing I remembered from it was a scientist with long, gray hair and huge unblinking eyeballs explaining in perfect monotone that he didn’t have a desire for the experiment to confirm or refute general relativity; he only wanted it to show what reality was like.

On top of all this, there was the sense of irony at so much mental gymnastics over a triviality like the slope of a baseball field, and the self-consciousness at the absurdity of standing around in the cold pointing jerry-rigged protractors at things. So at last I crossed the field and lined up my protractor for the moment of truth

It didn’t work. I had placed my shoes down on the grass as a target to site, but from center field they were hidden behind the pitcher’s mound. I recrossed the field and adjusted them, and went back. I still couldn’t see the shoes; they were too small and hidden in the grass. I could see my backpack, though, so I sited off that. But it still didn’t really work. I didn’t have a protractor on hand, so I had printed out the image of one from Wikipedia and stapled it to a piece of cardboard, but the cardboard wasn’t very flat, making siting along it to good accuracy essentially impossible.

I scrapped that, and after a few days went to Walgreens and found a cheap plastic protractor and some twine that I used to tie in my water bottle as a plumb bob. Returning to the field, I finally found the device to be, well, marginal. Holding it up to my eye, it was impossible to focus along the entire top of the protractor at once, and difficult to establish unambiguous criteria for when the protractor was accurately aimed. I was also holding the entire thing up with my hands, and trying to keep the string in place between siting along the protractor and moving my head around to get the reading.

Nonetheless, my reading came to 87 degrees from center field to home plate and 90 degrees from home plate back to center field. This three-degree difference seemed pretty good confirmation of the GPS data. In a final attempt to confirm my readings, I repeated the experiment in a hallway outside my office, which I hope is essentially flat. It’s 90 strides long, (and I’m about two strides tall) and I found 88 degrees from each side, roughly confirming that the protractor readings matched my expectations. (I’d have used the swimming pool, which I know is flat, but it’s closed at the moment.)

I’m now strongly confident that the baseball field is sloped – something around 95% after considering all the points in this post. That’s enough that I don’t care to keep investigating further with better devices, unless maybe someone I know turns out to have one sitting around.

Still, there is some doubt. Couldn’t I have subconsciously adjusted my protractor to find what I expected? There were plenty of ways to mess it up. What if I had found no slope with the protractor? Would I have accepted it as settling the issue, or would I have been more likely to doubt my readings? It’s perfectly rational to doubt an instrument more when it gives results you don’t expect – you certainly shouldn’t trust a thermometer that says your temperature is 130 degrees – but it still feels intuitively a bit wrong to say the protractor is more likely to be a good tool when it confirms what I already suspected.

The story of how belief is supposed to work is that for each bit of evidence, you consider its likelihood under all the various hypotheses, then multiplying these likelihoods, you find your final result, and it tells you exactly how confident you should be. If I can estimate how likely it is for Google Maps and my GPS to corroborate each other given that they are wrong, and how likely it is given that they are right, and then answer the same question for every other bit of evidence available to me, I don’t need to estimate my final beliefs – I calculate them. But even in this simple testbed of the matter of a sloped baseball field, I could feel my biases coming to bear on what evidence I considered, and how strong and relevant that evidence seemed to me.  The more I believed the baseball field was sloped, the more relevant (higher likelihood ratio) it seemed that there was that short steep hill on the side, and the less relevant that my intuition claimed the field was flat. The field even began looking more sloped to me as time went on, and I sometimes thought I could feel the slope as I ran, even though I never had before.

That’s what I was interested in here. I wanted to know more about the way my feelings and beliefs interacted with the evidence and with my methods of collecting it. It is common knowledge that people are likely to find what they’re looking for whatever the facts, but what does it feel like when you’re in the middle of doing this, and can recognizing that feeling lead you to stop?

Mike Brown, Planet Killer: “Mercury is Pissing Me Off”

December 19, 2010

Mike Brown is famous for discovering Eris, a dwarf planet larger than Pluto orbiting out on the far edge of the solar system. Ultimately, Eris’ discovery led to the redefinition of the word “planet” and the eradication of Pluto from children’s lunchboxes.

Brown’s new book, How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming tells the story of his team’s discovery of a complete menagerie out past Neptune – a place most astronomers thought held little but hydrogen, comets, and a few bits of rock that occasionally get flung out there by gas giants.

In an interview from last Wednesday, December 15, Brown told me that his most scientifically-important discovery was not Eris, but Sedna, a large object lying so far away from the gravitational perturbations of Jupiter and friends that its orbit can be traced back to the beginning of the solar system, and whose existence has challenged astronomers’ conception of how the planets formed.

Brown also showed me the sonograms of his embryonic daughter (now 5 years old) to compare side-by-side with photographs of Venus taken by the Venera Lander, and commented on the gravitational influence of my mother.

Part 1 (17 minutes: Hate mail, the process of writing, science of the early solar system)

Part 2 (31 minutes: More science, more writing, international intrigue, Pluto’s appeal and wimpiness)

The Crank Continuum

June 11, 2010

I’ve had one true crank on this blog. He jumped into the comments on this post with mathematical gibberish he claimed disproved relativity. Another time I saw a crank letter written to a researcher at JPL who worked on dark matter. This crank even provided a little mechanical apparatus intended to demonstrate the existence of dark matter. It consisted of a rubber or nylon sheet that was stretched over a wire frame, and then you were supposed to roll a marble around on it.

It’s kind of surprising that these cranks fit so well with the descriptions of many others in Martin Gardner’s Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science. Half a century after Gardner wrote his books, cranks, and belief in what they have to say, hasn’t changed much.

I picked up this book after Douglas Hofstadter mentioned it in an article reprinted in Scientific American after Gardner’s recent death. It’s essentially descriptive, spending surprisingly (and refreshingly) little time refuting crank theories of physics and medicine, and instead mostly detailing them. Gardner does, of course, refute each crank theory, but his most important contribution is to collect enough of them that cranks begin to look similar. (You can read Gardner’s generalizations about cranks in the Hofstadter article, or in chapter 1 of the book.)

Another surprising fact was that cranks are not just weirdos shouting loudly on obscure corners of the internet (ahem). Many cranks were fairly normal, and even learned and respected people outside of their crankery. A surprising array of famous, respected people bought into and campaigned for crank theories. Upton Sinclair recurs throughout the book, advocating a number of useless medical and dietary systems. Some other delusional supporters or even creators of crank ideas include Aldous Huxley, Clifton Fadiman, Oliver Heaviside, Walt Whitman, Arthur Conan Doyle, William James, H. G. Wells, and Jesus (last one added by me; the others are from Gardner. However, many of Gardner’s cranks theories are motivated by proving or justifying religious claims).

It seems that as you cross over into the realm of crankery, you begin to believe your discovery has more and more power and wider and wider applicability. Medical cranks, for example, rarely believe they have a cure for cervical cancer. They think they have a cure for everything. Sometimes they even branch out and extend their theory of physiology to explain physics.

Crankery is dangerous, because in some ways it’s difficult for a layman to see the difference between crank science and real science. In crank science, the observations frequently go against the crank’s theory. The crank then comes up with excuses for why this is so (read Gardner’s chapter on Dr. Joseph Banks Rhine’s work on ESP for an especially clear example). But you can find scientists doing the same thing! A chemist’s reaction doesn’t come out right, so he assumes it was contaminated. A particle physicist doesn’t see the effect he was looking for, so he assumes it occurs at just slightly higher energy. How can we tell the difference between honest excuses – those that are truly identifying mistakes in the experimental conditions – and dishonest ones – those that are the result of a researcher who would find an excuse under any circumstances? In recent years I’ve heard from time to time about new attempts to publish scientists’ negative results and to make their complete lab processes and all data openly available. These are two efforts that should help distinguish them from cranks.

But another problem with the crank mindset is that there’s no sharp dividing line. Aside from science, I’ve read a bit about training distance runners, so I’ll use that here. One clear crank is Percy Cerutty, a coach who demanded his runners carry spears and “run like the primitive man”, advocated strange diets, and in general believed, as cranks do, that he had stumbled onto secrets that no one else knew. Eventually, his runners left him. A more marginal case is Arthur Lydiard. Lydiard is a coach who created a fairly rigid, systematized training system and then advocated it as being the best possible. His system was based on trial and error in his early days of coaching. He tried a few different things and then stuck with what seemed to work best. But he began to believe that all his advice was better, stronger, and more iron-clad than it was. He also began to think his general ideas applied not just to running, but to all athletic endeavors (specifically shot put, rugby, and rowing come to mind). He’s an in-between crank, because he did hold himself accountable to the results of his methods, and he did coach Olympic champions, but he also lost touch with reality (Lydiard still has a large following of distance runners today, many of whom would be incensed if they read this summary.)

Modern coaches, too, tend to believe in their methods beyond the level their results support, and babble on endlessly about aspects of human physiology that are not as well-understood as they indicate. But the point is that they do this to varying degrees, with coaches ranging widely from true cranks to rational, down-to-earth people with a healthy dose of skepticism towards even their own practices and a realistic viewpoint on the success and failure of their athletes.

I have frequently found myself buying into crank athletic ideas, believing, for example, that all my injuries are due exclusively to running on hard roads (as opposed to trails or grass), although I had no data to support the belief. After reading scores of books and hundreds of articles, I now believe mostly that I’m not very sure about anything regarding training distance runners.

Surely, there is a crank continuum in science as well. On the one hand, there is an ideal scientist who (perhaps) evaluates all new evidence they receive with a perfectly-rational Bayesian approach, drawing conclusions only to the extent warranted by the evidence (and their prior beliefs). But scientists, even good ones, don’t do all do that. Once in a while they begin to believe in their own theories even when the evidence starts to pile against them. The outcomes they want to see happen affect the results of their experiments, or they choose not to publish results they don’t like. Their error bars grow just large enough that the data is consistent.

Usually it’s not hard to tell a crank. Also, as Gardner points out in his book, just because there are some intermediate cases, doesn’t mean that most cases aren’t clear-cut. But I’m glad I read about what cranks do, how they justify their delusions, because I don’t have to look too long and hard to see hints of the same behavior in myself.

Let’s Read the Internet! Week 11: Good and Bad Explanation

May 14, 2010

Do you think rationally about all the opinions you read, carefully considering why you agree or disagree with any given viewpoint, or is your method for discourse more like the way you sift through a hundred crappy photos of yourself to find the kinda-hot-but-not-too-slutty one that will be your Facebook profile picture? Oh yes, I like this one. All the other can go now.

It’s been a long time since I last read the internet with you, so it’s time to do that again. Hopefully you’ll be entertained, and also question the way you think about facts and reality. Although this is a links dump, incredibly none of it involves cats or pornography.

Via Swans on Tea, Feynman discusses, in a tangential manner, what magnetism is.

When I launch into an explanation, my goal is something is along the lines of, “I’m going to say something to you, and when I’m done, you’ll understand it the way I do.” My guess is that most people implicitly think about explanation the same way. An explainer says some words, possibly along with drawing pictures or doing a demonstration, and the explainee watches, listens, and understands.

We expect some confusion and some back-and-forth questions. Also, the scope of what is explained may be very small, so that the explainer perhaps knows a lot more details, but despite these caveats I think this “I will give you my knowledge” approach is the subtext for most of our explanations.

The strange thing is that if you ask people directly what explanation is, they do not believe this. They believe that explanations are highly context-dependent, and that they’re imperfect, and that their scope is limited. (“I don’t expect the explainee to get everything. The explanation just gives the general idea, and they’ll work out the details in due time…”), but when I watch two people engaged in a explainer/explainee interaction I get the feeling that they will consider the exchange a failure (or at least not wholly successful) if the explainee ultimately does not understand the subject the way the explainer does. Even the drastically different approaches people take when explaining something to an adult or to a child seem based on the principle that in order for the explanation to be effective, it must be worded to suit the audience, but the explainer still hopes to be completely understood. They just need to find the right way to say things.

Feynman points out that this sort of explanation is impossible because knowledge doesn’t consist of tidbits. Feynman cannot take his knowledge of magnetism and “dumb it down” in any sort of accurate way, because that knowledge is couched in the context of everything else he knows about nature. Feynman’s understanding of magnetic forces was much more thorough than the interviewer’s because Feynman understood the fundamental forces involved; he knew all about quantum theory and the interaction of light with matter, and had a feeling for what things were and were not already known and explained by physical models. He also had practical experience with magnets, and had taught students about magnetism and investigated all sorts of magnetic phenomena. But in addition to this knowledge of the theories and models of magnetism, Feynman’s understanding is tempered by his abilities. What separates the scientist from the layperson is not their knowledge of science, but their ability to mathematically manipulate the model, or even create a new one, to derive understanding.

If Feynman were still around and he sat down to tutor me in all aspects of electromagnetism, we could probably make a lot of progress. With enough time, he could teach me everything he knew. But I still wouldn’t understand it the way he did.

With that, let’s look at an explanation I particularly liked:

We Recommend a Singular Value Decomposition
David Austin at the American Mathematical Society.

This is an explanation of the singular value decomposition, a basic tool in linear algebra. I remember learning about it while studying linear algebra, but I didn’t understand it very clearly. I thought about it only formally, and I kept getting the idea of what it was confused with the proof that it exists. As a result, if I were asked to explain singular value decompositions to someone else, I’d have first gone back to my linear algebra book to review, then pretty much repeated what it said there, trying desperately to do things just differently enough that I wasn’t copying.

I got the feeling that Austin did the opposite in writing this article. he did not sit down and say, “Okay, what are all the things I know about SVD and all the good examples of it, and then how can I condense them all and make it appropriate to the audience?”

Instead, it seemed like he said, “I happen to know a couple of good pictures that make this clear in the case of a 2×2 matrix. Based on that, what sort of presentation of the SVD makes sense? What level of detail would muddy the presentation? If I change the order I present the ideas, how will that change the reader’s perception of the SVD’s theoretical and practical importance? What can be left out, and how can I get straight to the heart of the matter and communicate that first?”

Very quickly in the essay, Austin gets to this picture:

Singular value decomposition of [(1,1),(0,1)]

which illustrates the singular value decomposition of

\left[ \begin{array}{cc} 1 & 1 \\ 0 & 1 \end{array}\right].

There are only a few short paragraphs before that, but already we’ve walked through a story that motivates it. Austin gives three examples showing how we can understand linear transformations visually, and by the time we finish the third, it was apparent to me that a singular value decomposition is a logical extension of the linear algebra I was already familiar with. He had me hooked for the rest of the article.

After giving his example, Austin builds directly to the equation

M = U \Sigma V^T

which illustrates why it’s a “decomposition”, and what each part of the decomposition means. Only after giving a fairly complete explanation of what a singular value decomposition is did he start to go into how to find it and how to apply it.

Lots of math or physics writing I see doesn’t take this approach. Instead, the first I see a particular equation is at the end of its derivation. That means that all the derivation leading up to it seemed unmotivated to me. Austin doesn’t even include the derivations. There’s enough detail that I could work through the missing parts by myself, ultimately understanding them better than I would if each step were spelled out for me. For example, he writes

In other words, the function |M x| on the unit circle has a maximum at v_1 and a minimum at v_2. This reduces the problem to a rather standard calculus problem in which we wish to optimize a function over the unit circle. It turns out that the critical points of this function occur at the eigenvectors of the matrix M^TM.

That’s actually more effective for me than actually going through the details of the calculus problem. It points me in the right direction to go over it when I’m interested, but in the meantime lets me continue on to the rest of the good stuff.

By reorganizing the material, omitting details, and (literally) illustrating his concepts, Austin finally got me to pay attention to something I ostensibly learned years ago.

Next, I’d like to illustrate my lack of creativity by returning to Feynman, this time his Caltech commencement address from 1974

Cargo Cult Science

Feynman identifies a problem:

In the South Seas there is a Cargo Cult of people. During the war they saw airplanes land with lots of good materials, and they want the same thing to happen now. So they’ve arranged to make things like runways, to put fires along the sides of the runways, to make a wooden hut for a man to sit in, with two wooden pieces on his head like headphones and bars of bamboo sticking out like antennas—he’s the controller—and they wait for the airplanes to land. They’re doing everything right. The form is perfect. It looks exactly the way it looked before. But it doesn’t work. No airplanes land. So I call these things Cargo Cult Science, because they follow all the apparent precepts and forms of scientific investigation, but they’re missing something essential, because the planes don’t land.

and suggests a solution:

Details that could throw doubt on your interpretation must be given, if you know them. You must do the best you can—if you know anything at all wrong, or possibly wrong—to explain it. If you make a theory, for example, and advertise it, or put it out, then you must also put down all the facts that disagree with it, as well as those that agree with it. There is also a more subtle problem. When you have put a lot of ideas together to make an elaborate theory, you want to make sure, when explaining what it fits, that those things it fits are not just the things that gave you the idea for the theory; but that the finished theory makes something else come out right, in addition.

For an example of awful science, take a look at a story that made it to Slashdot a little while ago, Scientists Postulate Extinct Hominid with 150 IQ.

The Slashdot summary says,

Neuroscientists Gary Lynch and Richard Granger have an interesting article in Discover Magazine about the Boskops, an extinct hominid that had big eyes, child-like faces, and forebrains roughly 50% larger than modern man indicating they may have had an average intelligence of around 150, making them geniuses among Homo sapiens. The combination of a large cranium and immature face would look decidedly unusual to modern eyes, but not entirely unfamiliar. Such faces peer out from the covers of countless science fiction books and are often attached to ‘alien abductors’ in movies.

Slashdot is known for being strong on computer news, not for their science coverage, but still it’s surprising to me that such a ridiculous bit of claptrap got so much attention. A few commenters point out how absurd the conclusion that an entire race of people had an average IQ of 150 is, but there is so much white noise in the comments of any large online community that most people usually don’t read them, probably including the people who write the comments in the first place.

And even if Slashdot will publish sensational cargo cult stories like this, what business does it have in Discover Magazine, which I don’t read, but had assumed was fairly reputable? Discover published this quote about the Boskops:

Where your memory of a walk down a Parisian street may include the mental visual image of the street vendor, the bistro, and the charming little church, the Boskop may also have had the music coming from the bistro, the conversations from other strollers, and the peculiar window over the door of the church. Alas, if only the Boskop had had the chance to stroll a Parisian boulevard!

First, that doesn’t sound like high intelligence to me. It sounds like autism. Second, how the fuck would you know that from looking at some skulls? Such conclusions obviously have no place in the science-with-integrity Feynman described.

20 years ago, if I had read that story I would not have gone to the effort to follow up on it. (For one thing I’d have been five years old, and so instead of doing some research I would have drank a juice box, gone outside to play, and pooped myself.) Now we have the internet, and follow-up is very easy. Fortunately, high up on the Google results is John Hawks’ article, The “Amazing” Boskops. Hawks, summarizing his review of literature on the Boskops, writes,

…in fact, what happened is that a small set of large crania were taken from a much larger sample of varied crania, and given the name, “Boskopoid.” This selection was initially done almost without any regard for archaeological or cultural associations — any old, large skull was a “Boskop”. Later, when a more systematic inventory of archaeological associations was entered into evidence, it became clear that the “Boskop race” was entirely a figment of anthropologists’ imaginations. Instead, the MSA-to-LSA population of South Africa had a varied array of features, within the last 20,000 years trending toward those present in historic southern African peoples.

Hawks then followed up with more detail later.

The good news is that the Boskop nonsense will die out because it’s wrong, and our system works well enough that things that are wrong do eventually die out.

In that little vignette, I looked at a big magazine and published book that were nonsense, and debunked by a blog. It’s not always easy to determine the credibility of a source, and its reputation can be misleading. Blogs have a terrible a reputation in general, while some people seem to believe that if it’s in a book, it must be true. (Unfortunately people take this to the extreme with one particularly poorly-documented and self-contradictory bestselling book!)

A more difficult stickier issue is anthropogenic global warming. There is little doubt in my mind that anthropogenic global warming is real, but unlike with evolution, I do not believe that because I have looked at the scientific evidence and thought about the arguments for and against. I haven’t examined the methods of collecting raw data or the factors accounted for in climate models. I don’t even know how accurate those models’ predictions are. I take it all on the word of climate scientists and a cursory review of their reports. I do not see this as a problem or a failure of my rationality. I do withhold judgment on whether global warming is as important an issue as, say, pollution or direct destruction of natural resources, but I do not feel reservation in stating that I think it is very likely that if humans continue on the way they’ve been going, the Earth will warm with severe consequences.

What does this have to do with cargo cult science? Cargo cult science is the reason I believe the climate scientists rather than the climate skeptics. My goal here isn’t to convince you one way or another about climate science, or to link to the best-reasoned discussions about it or to give an accurate cross-section of the blogosphere’s thinking process. These are various opinions on anthropogenic global warming, and my hope is that reading for the underlying decision-making process is an instructive exercise.

Here is Lord Monckton, a prominent global warming critic:

Here he is interviewing a Greenpeace supporter about why she believes in anthropogenic global warming:

Here is the UN group Monckton criticizes, the
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
In particular, their Climate Change 2007 Synthesis Report, a 52-page summary of all things climate science. For more detail, their Publications and Data are available.

Here is a recent letter published in Science. It discusses the process scientists use to create reports on the climate, the uncertainty in scientific results, the fallibility of scientific findings, and the role of integrity in science.
Climate Change and the Integrity of Science

Here is statistician and blogger Andrew Gelman talking about expert opinion and scientific consensus:
How do I form my attitudes and opinions about scientific questions?

Here is famous skeptic James Randi on the pressure for scientific consensus, the fallibility of scientists, the uncertainty in models of complicated phenomena, and his skepticism of anthropogenic global warming:
AGW Revisited

Here is the petition Randi describes, the
Petition Project

Here is a reply to Randi and the Petition Project from PZ Myers, a biologist and well-known angry internet scientist.
Say it ain’t so, Randi!

Here is a graphic by David McCandless. Its goal is to present an example of the arguments one would uncover in an attempt to self-educate about climate science using only the internet.
Global Warming Skeptics vs. The Scientific Consensus

Greg Laden writes about skepticism, rationality, and groupthink in a lengthy post.
Are you a real skeptic? I doubt it.

Here is the Wikipedia Article on anthropogenic global warming, along with tabs to the discussion page for the article and the article history. This is a featured article on Wikipedia.
Global Warming

My focus on the process people are using to come to terms with global warming isn’t meant to deemphasize the importance of this issue and of other aspects of the relationship between humanity and our biome. Our Earth is a fantastically diverse and endlessly beautiful home. Of course I want to understand it better.

Click to watch "Home" by Yann Arthus-Bertrand

Also here is a physics blog story about a mathematical model of cows.

Bounce, part 5

January 4, 2010

This post is a digression from the topic of the previous parts (1 2 3 4). We’ll move away from discussing how high a tennis ball should bounce when dropped on top a basketball, and into some metadiscussion of the arguments made in the first four parts. It’s a long post as well, but it’ll be good for you, because half the words are Galileo’s, not mine, and he’s a dude worth reading.

Last time, I cited Galileo as our source for understanding uniformly accelerated motion – the motion of a ball dropped or thrown in the air.

Before introducing his idea of what uniformly accelerated motion is, Galileo gives us an extended prelude. It’s long, but I think it’s worth seeing all at once, rather than piece-by-piece.

For anyone may invent an arbitrary type of motion and discuss its properties; thus, for instance, some have imagined helices and conchoids as described by certain motions which are not met with in nature, and have very commendably established the properties which these curves possess in virtue of their definitions; but we have decided to consider the phenomena of bodies falling with an acceleration such as actually occurs in nature and to make this definition of accelerated motion exhibit the essential features of observed accelerated motions. And this, at last, after repeated efforts we trust we have succeeded in doing. In this belief we are confirmed mainly by the consideration that experimental results are seen to agree with and exactly correspond with those properties which have been, one after another, demonstrated by us. Finally, in the investigation of naturally accelerated motion we were led, by hand as it were, in following the habit and custom of nature herself, in all her various other processes, to employ only those means which are most common, simple and easy.

For I think no one believes that swimming or flying can be accomplished in a manner simpler or easier than that instinctively employed by fishes and birds.

When, therefore, I observe a stone initially at rest falling from an elevated position and continually acquiring new increments of speed, why should I not believe that such increases take place in a manner which is exceedingly simple and rather obvious to everybody?

Galileo is mixing two approaches, and they appear to be intrinsically intertwined in his mind. The first is the ultra-skeptical pure empiricism viewpoint. This line of thought says that the only way to know about a thing is to confirm it by experiment. All scientific theories are to be tested against nature. If the theory and experiment agree, we fail to reject the theory. If the theory and experiment disagree, we reject the theory. Many modern scientists cite this as the true scientific viewpoint. (Note that from this point of view, you never confirm a scientific theory. Many scientists will agree with this – you never prove anything to be true in science. Also, I have called this viewpoint “empiricism”, a term which is sometimes used slightly differently in epistemology, where it refers to the belief that knowledge comes from sensory experience in general, rather than scientific experimentation in particular. Nonetheless, the cores of scientific and epistemological empiricism are similar.)

But, along with his statement that his knowledge of falling bodies comes from experiment, Galileo also has curious references to simplicity, in particular some out-of-place stuff about swimming fish and flying birds. This, to me, is the germ of a new idea – an idea that what we learn about nature ought to make sense to us on a deep level, once we’ve learned it. Greek philosophers (so I hear, not having read them) believed the Universe ought to make sense, and that they could therefore understand it with a priori reasoning. This is not quite what Galileo seems to believe. He holds himself responsible to experiment, unlike Aristotle, but I think that if experiment gave strange or unusual results that Galileo couldn’t understand, he’d be extremely dissatisfied. He feels a deep need to take the mathematical results, back them up with data, but then do even more. He needs them to make sense.

Two New Sciences is written as a dialogue (or, there being three interlocutors, a trialogue?), with Sagredo and Simplicio, two men who haven’t learned the new sciences, questioning Salviati, who has learned them and is explaining them to his friends. Galileo uses this device to explore intuition. He has Sagredo and Simplicio raise all manner of interesting objections to Salviati’s ideas, just so Salviati can find interesting answers to allay their unease. (This format is out of style in modern physics text, with rare exceptions like Spacetime Physics, a book I enjoy much more today than I did when first learning special relativity from it six years ago.)

For example, Sagredo thinks there is a problem with saying that a body dropped from rest has a speed proportional to the time fallen. He objects,

…we must infer that, as the instant of starting is more and more nearly approached, the body moves so slowly that, if it kept on moving at this rate, it would not traverse a mile in an hour, or in a day, or in a year or in a thousand years; indeed, it would not traverse a span in an even greater time; a phenomenon which baffles the imagination, while our senses show us that a heavy falling body suddenly acquires great speed.

He thinks there is a disconnect between the math and experiment, because the math says that when you drop something, it has almost no speed after falling a short distance, but Sagredo thinks that when you drop a heavy thing it starts falling quickly immediately. Maybe you don’t have this difficulty of intuition, but if you do, Salviati replies by appealing to an experiment.

You say the experiment appears to show that immediately after a heavy body starts from rest it acquires a very considerable speed: and I say that the same experiment makes clear the fact that the initial motions of a falling body, no matter how heavy, are very slow and gentle. Place a heavy body upon a yielding material, and leave it there without any pressure except that owing to its own weight; it is clear that if one lifts this body a cubit or two and allows it to fall upon the same material, it will, with this impulse, exert a new and greater pressure than that caused by its mere weight; and this effect is brought about by the [weight of the] falling body together with the velocity acquired during the fall, an effect which will be greater and greater according to the height of the fall, that is according as the velocity of the falling body becomes greater. From the quality and intensity of the blow we are thus enabled to accurately estimate the speed of a falling body. But tell me, gentlemen, is it not true that if a block be allowed to fall upon a stake from a height of four cubits and drives it into the earth, say, four finger-breadths, that coming from a height of two cubits it will drive the stake a much less distance, and from the height of one cubit a still less distance; and finally if the block be lifted only one finger-breadth how much more will it accomplish than if merely laid on top of the stake without percussion? Certainly very little. If it be lifted only the thickness of a leaf, the effect will be altogether imperceptible. And since the effect of the blow depends upon the velocity of this striking body, can any one doubt the motion is very slow and the speed more than small whenever the effect [of the blow] is imperceptible? See now the power of truth; the same experiment which at first glance seemed to show one thing, when more carefully examined, assures us of the contrary. (brackets added by translator)

I get the feeling, while reading this passage, that Galileo cites this experiment simply because it gives him pleasure to do so. But in this case, even the experiment is not enough for him. He continues

But without depending upon the above experiment, which is doubtless very conclusive, it seems to me that it ought not to be difficult to establish such a fact by reasoning alone. Imagine a heavy stone held in the air at rest; the support is removed and the stone set free; then since it is heavier than the air it begins to fall, and not with uniform motion but slowly at the beginning and with a continuously accelerated motion. Now since velocity can be increased and diminished without limit, what reason is there to believe that such a moving body starting with infinite slowness, that is, from rest, immediately acquires a speed of ten degrees rather than one of four, or of two, or of one, or of a half, or of a hundredth; or, indeed, of any of the infinite number of small values [of speed]?

Here we see the second approach to nature. The idea that, once we’ve formulated a theory and tested it, we’re still not done. We need to reason about it, too. We need to go back, take the solution, and make it ours. We need to convince our grandmothers, who don’t know math, that this is the way it ought to be. And both these processes are intertwined. You can use the idea that nature ought to be simple to figure out what the laws are, but if you do, you’re still subject to testing them by experiment. Conversely, you can use experiment to figure out the laws, but if you do, you’re still subject to figuring out why things came out that way.

Galileo is the earliest source I’ve seen with this new, sophisticated attitude. Naturalists wanted to observe, discover, and document what happened around us. Philosophers wanted to talk about it in the abstract and explain its deeper logic. But Galileo wanted to do both. And it’s only when you do both that you’ve accomplished the real goal – understanding.

I’m not saying this attitude sprung up in Galileo’s work with no precedent, but I do think it’s clearly evident here, and since Two New Sciences is a landmark work in terms of the physical ideas it presents, it’s important to examine in terms of the philosophical ones is presents, too.

This Galilean principle still guides us today. Science isn’t about testing hypotheses and controlling experiments and statistical significance. Science is about figuring things out. The methods of modern science evolved over time as the problems scientists dealt with demanded them. (A great deal of statistics was invented specifically to study genetic inheritance, for example). Galileo didn’t have our textbook scientific method, but ultimately he didn’t need it to make great progress.

Today we need things like careful laboratory conditions and error propagation formulas to keep us from screwing up when things get tricky and hard to interpret. But the core of my world outlook, which I am not afraid to claim is also the core of the scientific one, is that you are just trying to figure things out, subject to checking what really happens, and then, once you do that, trying to understand.

Next time, I’ll take a look at one of Galileo’s arguments that didn’t work. That’s the other thing about science that I like. Nobody’s perfect, and you’re expected to screw up at least once in a while.

Now I Know SCIENCE!

October 6, 2009

This is supposed to be a blog. It isn’t. It’s just the standard WordPress template with posts coming in irregular bursts.

Part of being a blog is that you’re supposed to be integrated into the blogosphere. This is because if you take a bunch of meaningless things and endlessly interconnect them, you get what’s known in science as an emergent phenomenon, in this case endless confusion. So I really ought to hook up to the blogosphere and get in on that.

On the other hand, it turns out there are these people who want blogs to be useful. So what they do is sift, organize, centralize, and bring similar bloggers together. GrrlScientist (real name, I think. You wouldn’t put a fake name in the internet, right?) is one such person. She (or he, I suppose) runs Scientia Pro Publica, a blog carnival whose goal it is to make science understandable to everyone by writing in Latin. She’s hosted the 13th edition of Scientia today on her blog, including about 20 essays in popular science. They’re heavy on the life sciences, discussing such topics as parasites that eat weaverfish tongues and why I still don’t understand evolution. (Seriously, I don’t.)

There’s some meta-discussion of science, a post about the suckiness of iPhone camera, and they graciously included my post about retroreflectors on the moon as the only physics/astronomy representative.

The Asians Are Coming! But I Can’t Count How Many

December 11, 2008

Since I’ve started reading blogs, I’ve seen a lot of instances of people ranting madly about topics they don’t understand very well. These people also don’t understand why they aren’t taken more seriously, or why, in fact, the whole system doesn’t immediately bow to their sagacity. But now that I, too, am a blogger, I’m beginning to understand the severely-debilitating effect the freedom to publish uncensored material has on human judgment. So here I am joining the ranks of men screaming into a hurricane, and unknowingly pointing the wrong direction.

A recent story from the NY Times warns repeatedly that those tricky little Asian people are eating a gazillion tons of fish every day and getting way too good at math. You see, for at least the last ten years both a generic statement and its complement have been considered racist if they involve black people in any way. Further, the whole feeling-generally-uncomfortable-about-anything-Islamic thing has been used as the hook on enough network TV shows that people are starting to get pretty sensitive about that, too. But we haven’t done anything really bad to the Asians since Vietnam, so it’s pretty much okay to treat them as one big group and find reasons to be scared of them.

Apparently, kids in Singapore, Taiwan, and Japan do very well, on average, on standardized math tests. It’s supposed to send off alarm bells and spur us to reform the educational system. But the stat is not what it’s made out to be.

Here are three of the more practical reasons we might want students to be mathematically competent:
1) it helps them balance their checkbook and etc.
2) it’s necessary background for engineers and accountants, etc.
3) it’s necessary for innovation. great technological and scientific breakthroughs are made by people who understand math

But here’s why childrens’ average test scores are irrelevant to these points
1) (math helps with life) It’s increasingly unnecessary for the average person to know math. Computers will do it all for you. Anything that requires a minimal amount of the sort of mathematical, logical, and/or algorithmic thinking employed by a math, science, or computer-type person can now be automated to the point where an intelligent chimpanzee can do it. Want to calculate your BMI? Don’t bother with the formula. Just plug in the numbers to a calculator, which automatically multiplies them to each other for you. Don’t want to figure out your taxes? Plug it into Quicken. Or hire an accountant, who also doesn’t know math very well but can plug things into Quicken more efficiently than you. Don’t know how much longer to boil an ostrich egg than a chicken egg? Don’t bother with dimensional analysis. Just look it up online.

2) (math helps with jobs) Partially, more of the same argument as point 1) applies here. Want to be an airline pilot? Don’t worry yourself too much with the math. Just make sure the numbers from this instrument agree with the numbers from that instrument, and the computers will take care of everything. The percentage of people who really need to be good at math is quite small, so we should be more interested in the scores of the top 5% or top 1% of students than the average score.

3) (math leads to technological and scientific excellence) The average performance of students is simply irrelevant to this one. Big ideas come from people who work hard on problems because they’re intrigued by them and genuinely interested in the work itself. They need a spark of creativity to go with their technical competence, but spark is the really essential thing. It’s far easier to be very good at electrical engineering (for example) than it is to do something important in it. And frankly, hours upon hours drilling practice problems until you’ve memorized all the methods of solution is not going to get you far beyond good test scores. But that, as best I can tell from here, it’s what’s going on with the Asia/West divide in math scores. The Asian kids study longer and work harder. The cuiture is extremely performance-based, so that parents push their kids hard, but they only thing anyone cares about are good grades and good test scores. Since the tests don’t require creativity, why bother encouraging it?

I’ve been teaching American high school kids for a while. Many of them have been first or second generation Americans from Asian families. They grew up bilingual and their households retain most of the traditional values of Korea/Taiwan/Japan, including those relating to education. I’ve also taught kids from America, the UK, India, France, Italy, Turkey, Japan, China, Mexico, Canada, and various places I hadn’t even heard of before i met them. I’ve taught whites, blacks, east asians, south asians, hispanics, polynesians, native americans, and various combinations thereof. And guess what? They’re all the same. Not the kids, I mean, of course they’re quite different from each other. But I do not see any systematic difference in competence, creativity, interest, brilliance, ability to concentrate, or whatever other factors are essential to doing great things with technical material.

It has been my experience that when you look at the top few percent – the ones who are truly gifted at this stuff, and occasionally ask questions that startle me with their insight, or find clearer and more direct explanations of the topic at hand than I had sniffed up myself – are more likely to be male. Not exclusively, of course. The most insightful student I ever had was a girl. But that gender bias is the only systematic tendency that’s stuck out to me.

So the Asian kids kicking American kids’ butts at math is not a clarion call. It may be a benchmark for how effective our educational system is, and how seriously our culture treats education, but not for how many great thinkers we’ll have in this country twenty years from now. If we want to have a home-grown army of thinkers and innovators, we should be more concerned with how much kids like math and want to do it on their own, rather than how many formulas they’ve memorized by age 10. A high schooler’s knowledge of math won’t get you all that far, anyway. It only comes from higher study, and America still has the world’s best system of institutes of higher learning. So it’s not a matter of cramming more into their heads while they’re young. It’s a matter of honestly and fairly presenting to young people what math is and what it can do. As long as grade school doesn’t make kids hate math, it’s doing fine. The ones who have aptitude will naturally gravitate towards it. We need to make sure that when they do, there’s someone there to guide that top 5%, and that we’re not all too busy worrying about the grade of the kid in the middle of the class to notice that the kid at the top just proved a new result in number theory.

My guess is that most of the people who spend their time screaming, “The Asians are coming! They traded their abacuses for TI-89’s and they’re going to swipe the technical carpet from under our fat, complacent feet!” know much more about statistics than about the process of becoming technically competent, one part of which is to learn never to take statistics at face value. If our goal is really to raise the average test score, it has to come as much from a shift in cultural values as a change to the educational system. But if our goal is to be a scientifically and technologically vital society, the masses are not the place to look.

Let’s Read the Internet! week 8

December 8, 2008

Wind-Powered Perpetual Motion
and
Why the Directly-Downwind Faster Than the Wind Car Works”
Mark Chu-Carroll on Good Math, Bad Math

“The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.”

Socrates would have to be a fan of the scientific method. We frequently acclaim the shift towards naturalism in Western thought, as a turning point in our intellectual maturity, but that shift brought with it the less-recognized roots of an even higher goal – the eradication of hubris in the search for understanding. Naturalism, the philosophical position that empirical observation holds the final word in debates on truth, essentially kills the argument of “because I say so.” Truth comes from no one in particular, so there’s at least the faint possibility that people trying to understand the way things work will some day no longer jockey and battle to be “the one who got it right.” That’s a far-out ideal, and maybe if nobody thought they were going to be credited with brilliance, nobody would have the incentive to try to do something brilliant in the first place. But at the very least, when two naturalists have an argument, they can frequently appeal to a common, impartial, higher source – nature – as arbiter.

That’s what’s happened here on Mark Chu-Carroll’s widely-read blog. He initially, and incorrectly, believed a certain device that drives overland into the wind and faster than the wind was a fraud. After long, long debates, he changed his mind, and carefully explained the mistakes in his own reasoning and what he had learned in the process of investigating his own error. Which is pretty much awesome, because such things hardly ever occur in arguments on less savory topics, like abortion. (Oh my God, was that an eating-dead-babies joke?)

I also appreciated the sort of emergent didactic property of the hundred-some post comment thread on Chu-Carroll’s original post. After watching the youtube video of the device (linked from the original post), I wasn’t completely sure whether the treadmill test was fair. It seemed reasonable enough, but I certainly wouldn’t have been prepared to defend it against someone eager to argue the opposite way.

As I read the thread, commenters raised most of the points I was considering. Other people answered those points, and then even more people chimed in with takes that I hadn’t considered at all. The overall effect was for a large amount of white noise and repetition, but also for a strikingly-diverse set of mindsets converging on the same problem. By the time I was done reading what everyone had to say, I felt that I had appreciated more intricacies in the problem than I would ever have discovered thinking about it alone, and I probably understood it better than I would have even if a single skilled author had written a long exposition. The challenge of interpreting each new voice’s arguments, incorporating them with the previous knowledge, and then parsing all of it for myself over and over, trying to find holes in everyone’s logic and patch together a firm understanding piece by piece, was absorbing because it’s so much more interactive than simply reading one single person’s explanation, no matter how clear, detailed, or precise.

It makes me want to argue about physics more often, but only in the good way where your ego doesn’t get too involved.

A Russian Teacher In America
Andre Toom, linked from God Plays Dice

A long essay that’s a borderline sob story about the woes of the American educational system. As a private tutor, I see exactly the sort of problems Toom is discussing on a daily basis – students, even (or perhaps especially) the “good” students, are so maniacally focused on their grade that learning becomes completely lost amidst a sea of test-cramming, and question-memorizing. Students are so wrapped up in the concrete performance markers visible to the world, that they don’t care at all for their true progress, visible chiefly to themselves.

That, at least, is the picture. I only partially buy it. It’s true, to varying degrees, for many students. But it’s not as if this entire nation has no one left interested in math. The sad part is that over two hundred or so students I’ve had, there have been a handful who are truly interested in math and physics, but they seldom have much guidance. Because these kids can gets A’s in math class, no one in public school is very concerned with pushing their limits when there are too many problem kids to worry about first. So I’m more interested in people with plans on how to reach interested young students with extra-curricular math opportunities than I am with people deriding a broken system.

Not everyone is going to love math. In fact, I doubt there’s ever been a society where a majority of people are interested. But the vast majority of our society has to take it in school. So yeah, it’s inevitable that there are lots of people taking math who don’t care about math. But I’ve done the same thing in a literature class before. Ultimately, math is cool enough that some people are going to discover it no matter what the educational system is like, so I’m not all that worried about the alarm bells being rung here.

Blow to Vitamins as Antidote to Ageing
James Randerson at The Guardian

We thought we understood, like, everything. Turns out not. But the next study that comes out will surely reveal the secrets to perfect health once and for all…

Swiss Approve Heroin Scheme but Vote Down Marijuana Law

Sounds like a pretty good plan to me. Administer heroin to addicts in a safe, controlled environment, thereby reducing health risks and driving down the general nastiness associated with black market activity. I can also understand why you wouldn’t want to legalize marijuana in just one small portion of Europe, since everyone would then go there just to smoke. The same argument doesn’t hold as much water for the US with its block-like geography, but I live in California, where marijuana is as good as legal anyway.

Nebulous
Tara Donovan

from Three Quarks Daily

The Not-So-Presidential Debate

The Not So Presidential Debate from aaron sedlak on Vimeo.
also from Three Quarks Daily

Why Punishment Is Worth It In The End
Ed Yong at Not Exactly Rocket Science

Read this article or else! Nah, honestly I would never be able to go through life as someone who tried to understand human interactions by designing toy experiments like this. But It’s nice to get little sixty-second summaries of their months of hard labor.

Over-budget Mars rover mission delayed until 2011
Rachel Courtland at New Scientist

Bad news, since I work at the place where they’re building this thing, and they owe me two months’ back pay already.

15 of the World’s Most Creative Papercraft Artists

You get to feeling a little bit sleazy when you realize all the exposure you’ve had to art in the last two years has come in the form of internet lists with titles like “The Top Ten Totally Badass Avant-Garde Experimental Playdoh Exhibitions of 2008!!” But on the other hand, some of this stuff actually is pretty badass, for being a paper sculpture of a cat.

A Happy/Unhappy New Pair of Studies
Stephen Black at Improbable Research

Among the headlines of news feeds I scanned through this week, there must have been at least ten stories referencing a recent paper purporting to show that happiness is “contagious”, that is, if I were to reach down and magically make your friends happy, you would become happy as well. When I first heard about this, I was intrigued, because I was wondering how you would establish this is a “contagious” effect, and not just correlation. It turns out: you don’t. The researchers, from what I can tell, simply found a correlation and announced that happiness is contagious. News stories are apparently contagious, too, because once word of this paper got out, most of the major science news outlets published something on the story.

But as the link describes, another study found that height was also “contagious”. That is, if your friends are tall, it’s likely you’re tall, too. Just as with happiness.

Sine of an Inscribed Angle
Brent Yorgey on The Math Less Traveled

A cute visualization of the law of sines.

Let’s Read the Internet! Week 7

November 30, 2008

Most Planets May Be Seeded With LIfe
Phil Berardelli Science

The title of this article really is “Most Planets May Be Seeded With Life”. I would point out what a ludicrous construction this is, but it would be approximately equivalent to nudging the guy standing next to you at the Taj Mahal and saying, “pretty nice, huh?”. The author also drops the journalistic gem, “The new find, described this week in the journal Astro-ph, is stronger.” Which is a bit surprising, because “Astro-ph” is not a journal at all, but just the name of the astrophysics section of arXiv.org, where physicists post free preprints of their work. The paper, which can be found here, has actually been accepted for publication in The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

The paper uses the word “life” twice in seven pages of text – once in the abstract and once in the introduction. The news story uses the word “life” five times, including in the title. I made a token attempt to skim through the paper, but I have no experience with astrochemistry and can’t really say much about the scientific merit of the work. The data sure looks pretty.

Here is the bottom line: the researchers behind this paper work hard at solving technical problems. The problem they were trying to solve here is, “how can you tell whether some particular organic molecule is out there in a given direction of outer space, when you can’t go there, can’t send a probe, can’t do an experiment, and can only passively collect a little bit of light?” Their work is astrochemistry, and it has no honest direct association with the origin of life. Also, if you want to understand what they do, you will have to devote a lot of time and energy into it.

But, the science writer is on a deadline. I know someone who interned for Science and wrote this sort of five-minute story. You probably only have one day to read about the work, get in contact with and get a quote from one of the lead scientists on the paper, then find another, independent scientist in the same field, who has also seen this particular preprint on the arXiv, and get a quote from that guy to balance the story out. Then you have to throw your story together as quickly as possible so it can go through revisions and the art people can find a relevant graphic, so you add a pun if you can detect one, and somehow make it catchy or attention-grabbing with the least possible effort. Of course “Origin of Life!” becomes the slant of the story.

I see two problems with this. One is that there are a lot more “origin of life” stories out there than there are actual breakthroughs on the origin of life. So if you’re innocently following at home what “those guys in the white labcoats” do all day, you’d at first think they’re making huge progress every week. Then after a while, you’d begin to wonder why, if they’ve been making so much huge progress, they still don’t seem to have all this figured out yet.

The second is a problem I’ve personally encountered. Science simply is not 100% adrenaline. Most of it is boring. Scientists spend much of their time waiting for gels to run, debugging their code, and fixing their lasers. (Sound awesome? It gets monotonous. But there are those few seconds every once in a while where you think, “Whoa! I play with lasers all day!” Then your thesis adviser tells you how much he’s looking forward to your presentation in group meeting on Monday. This is Friday night. You start to cry.) Having a science job is a lot like having a normal job. You just work more and get paid less.

That isn’t the picture you get coming in, though. Many of my high school students (I’ve had a couple hundred) have told me that they “love” science. I cringe a little when I hear that. (I cringe a lot when I get, “I love science, but I just don’t get the math part of it.”) Loving science, for them, just isn’t possible. They don’t know science. They might love the ideas they learned in science class. They might have loved doing their science fair project. But they probably will not love writing grant proposals or reviewing inscrutable papers. When they do finally get to the lab, they get a little confused about what it is they were looking forward to all this time. Come to think of it, maybe I was using the wrong pronoun this last paragraph, and wasn’t referring to my students at all.

Of course, seeing problems is easy. Everyone sees a thousand problems a day, mostly with other people. Then they bitch about it a bit and consider the issue closed. Not that I see a solution. But let’s leave the issue open.

Sea Change For Turtle Origins
Erik Stokstad at Science

I like this one much more than the last. Its attempt at a pun is so bad it’s simply confusing. It gives a nice picture of the “we don’t know shit” side of science. The underside of a turtle shell is apparently called a “plastron”, which is an egregiously-awesome term for such a mundane thing. Finally, there is a guy saying “The reason I’m excited about that is that it pushes the story of turtle origins even further back in time.”

Well shit yeah, baby! Now I’m excited, too. I’m so wired I can barerly acontrl my ffingers on the keybaorad.

Happy Thanksgiving
Nikita at Monosyllables

Here’s an awful confession. I was sitting around with some other guys like myself (well, not EXACTLY like myself, but other young American nerds) on Thanksgiving, projecting the computer screen on the wall so we could watch downloaded versions of Arrested Development. A story from Google news popped up citing the number of people killed that day in the terrorist attacks in Mumbai. I jokingly calculated that because Mumbai has about 13 million people in it, and people live 70 years or so, we could calculate the daily death rate there, which is order of magnitude 500. That gives a daily standard deviation of root 500, or 20-25 people assuming deaths are independent, randomly occurring events. The attacks that day were a three or four-sigma event. Barely statistically significant, because that many extra people should die totally at random in Mumbai once every few years. Then Nikita’s post reminded me there were real people there, that I knew some of them, and that it wasn’t so great a joke.

The Toughest Man In Cairo Vs. The Zionist Vegetable
Anand Balakrishnan in Bidoun

According to my old neighbor, Kamal Hanafi, the vegetables in Israel are huge and good for only one thing. “The cucumbers,” he exclaimed, eyes lighting up, “are this long”—he stretched his hands more than a foot apart. “They are this wide”—he made a circle with his two hands. “And they taste like shit, all chemicals and unnatural fertilizers.” He spat. “No one can eat vegetables that disgusting. The only people who use them are the women, who sit like this”—he spread his legs to demonstrate. “And the men, of course.” The invisible cucumber in his hands jabbed sharply up. “And now they’re sending their vegetables to Egypt to fuck us all.”

Dancing Droplets and Spherical Harmonics
Stefan on Backreaction

Little bubbles of oil resonating as spherical harmonics. I’ll bet you didn’t know they could do that. Now you do.

Perfect athlete’s 100m sprint time calculated
Dave Robson on New Scientist

More terrible abuse of the word “science”. The article says, “fitting the data to a mathematical model that matches the other results, Denny predicts future male sprinters will at best shave 0.21 seconds off Usain Bolt’s current world record of 9.69 seconds for the 100 metres.”

It’s wrong. It’s so terribly wrong. There is really no reason to believe that just because you drew a curve through some data points, you’ve predicted the future. If it were that easy, everyone would have done it earlier, and predicted today’s world records. But they didn’t. The article itself does technically refrain from calling the work “science”. But apparently it’s actually being published in the Journal of Experimental Biology, despite containing no experiment or biology. Can’t we just take all these people and send them somewhere?

Beethoven and Borge
from In The Dark

Humor on the piano. It’s like stand up comedy, but they’re sitting down. You better be, too, before watching these wacky films!

That’s it for this week. I read plenty of other stuff, but it was just boring things. Reminded me of you.

Origins

October 3, 2008

“Ah, the origin of the universe,” sighs physicist Leonard Susskind from the stage of Beckman Auditorium. “Boy, does that ever take me back.”

An hour later, Paul Davies intoned for the third time, “as Lenny already mentioned…” before explaining again that the universe is in fact quite old, and did or did not, perhaps, depending on your point of view and interpretation of various fine intricacies some small subset of specialists may or may not understand, come from somewhere.

The third physicist to speak, Caltech’s own Sean Carroll, probably couldn’t even tell who to credit before making a point. Was it “as Paul already mentioned,” or “as Lenny alluded,” or “as Paul said that Lenny previously indicated that I might say when it was my turn, about the point Paul made clarifying Lenny’s tangent on my thesis…”

Perhaps you see the difficulty, at something like the Origins conference, in keeping your physicists apart. When it comes to speculating on genesis, they appear to be bosons. (Note to non-physics people: that’s not as mean as you think. “Boson” is the name of a famous circus clown. He invented gravity. To help him juggle.)

Michael Shermer, director of the Skeptic Society, brought a host of eminent scientists to Caltech last Saturday to speak before a lay audience (like me). Ostensibly, their goal was to collectively meditate on whether “science makes belief in God obsolete.”

The scientists involved were as nonplussed by the imponderability of this question as any other reasonable person would be, and proceeded to talk about their research, instead.

Cristof Koch, Caltech’s (literally) colorful neuroscience professor, shocked his audience by explaining that, as a scientist, he thinks consciousness comes from somewhere. He tries to find out where by looking very closely.

For example, in occasional unfortunate instances, it’s medically necessary to stick all sorts of wires in epileptic people’s brains. As long as you’re doing that, you might as well mess around with some science.

It turns out that each concept you can consciously identify, such as “redness”, “pain”, and “Halle Berry-ness”) (a special property shared by her image, text of her name, and a sound recording of her name, but not images of other actresses or anything else researchers can think of), corresponds somewhere in your brain to the binary activity of a neuron. If you are seeing Halle Berry, the neuron fires. If you aren’t it doesn’t.

Sounds simple, right? That’s because it’s from a talk for designed for simple people. Consciousness is complicated, comes in varying degrees, and is notoriously slippy to analyze. But does Koch think the study of consciousness involves theology? No.

Do Susskind, Davies, and Carroll think that God can help explain the origin of the universe? No. If you stretch, it’s a slightly-fuzzy no. But still no.

Does David Prothero, Caltech/Occidental-affiliated expert on the fossil evidence of evolution, think religious considerations aid our understanding of the origin of life, or the Cambrian proliferation of life? Emphatic no.

But frankly, they just don’t seem that worried about it. They were brought in to talk about God. But except for Prothero, whose science is the target of a vigorous attack from certain flavors of Christianity, the speakers at the Origins conference confined their theological ruminations to a couple of bullet points on their final “in conclusion…” slide.

Sean Carroll excitedly delved into Boltzmann’s hypothesis that the universe’s low-entropy past is a statistical blip in an infinite history, then excoriated the idea and presented a new model of baby universes pinching off and “never writing home to their parents.”

Susskind compared the finely-tuned nature of physical constants to the finely-tuned sequence of a human genome to illustrate his idea of how string theory might explain the state of the universe.

Prothero described lab experiments in creating the chemistry of life. Davies speculated on the meta-laws constraining choices among logically-consistent universes. Koch told me I would forget the color of his orange shirt (I think), and that this was based on science.

So imagine that. You work so hard to bring a bunch of great scientists together to have a discussion about some sort of general silliness mankind spends its time fretting over, but they ignore the bait and discuss their scientific passions instead. Well, newly-minted frosh, welcome to Caltech.