Reviews

A beautifully told story with colorful characters out of epic tradition, a tight and complex plot, and solid pacing. -- Booklist, starred review of On the Razor's Edge

Great writing, vivid scenarios, and thoughtful commentary ... the stories will linger after the last page is turned. -- Publisher's Weekly, on Captive Dreams

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Odds and Ends and Tallahassee

Quote of the Day:

"Isn't it great to live in a society where the penalty for lying to a congressman can be up to 30 years in jail, but the penalty for a congressman lying to you is another two years in office."
-- Peter Schmuck, Baltimore Sun sports writer, concerning the indictment of Roger Clemens


Bonus Quote of the Day:

“Any entity – no matter how many tentacles it has – has a soul.”
— Guy Consolmagno, one of the Vatican’s astronomers, on whether he would baptize an alien.

 
It's a Good Thing He Ain't Bush:

The Obama administration has urged a federal appeals court to allow the government, without a court warrant, to affix GPS devices on suspects' vehicles to track their every move.
http://www.wired.com/threatlevel/2010/09/public-privacy/


An Irish Emigration Song, paraphrased

And it's good-bye Mick, and good-bye Pat, and good-bye all you lassies.
The anchor's away and the gangplank's up.  I'm bound for Tallahassee. 

Four frolicsome days teaching statistics!  Woo-hoo. 

Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Hermeneutics of Stephen Hawking


This is the true quill, because I got it neu from Hermen himself. 

Physicists, when they are off the reservation, say the cutest things.  Many of them hold philosophy in contempt because "there are never any final answers" in philosophy.  Unlike physics, where the phlogiston...  I mean, the impetus....  Well, you know what I mean.  But as Mary Midgley said, "People who refuse to have anything to do with philosophy have become enslaved to outdated forms of it." 

Actually, final answers only come from mathematics.  Physics, appears final to the extent it appears mathematical.  That was Descartes' original programme: could we but reduce science to mathematics, we could reach scientific conclusions with all the certainty of mathematical ones.  Well, Popper put a stop to that nonsense.  It gave us new nonsenses, but that is another matter. 

But physics is the most mathematical of the natural sciences.  In the sense of the Scientific Revolution, that makes it the most scientific of the sciences and recently, carried away by a fit of mathematical certainty, the estimable Dr. Stephen Hawking wrote:

"As recent advances in cosmology suggest, the laws of gravity and quantum theory allow universes to appear spontaneously from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going."

One is initially struck by several points.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Horatio Strikes Back

Skepticism about the variation in the fine structure inconstant.  (h/t John Farrell)  Pretty much correlates with which telescope was used.  Hence, with which folks made the observations.  This makes my little pointy quality engineer ears perk up.  Scientists are notoriously careless about issues of measurement system reliability.  (cf. surface station temperature measurements.) 

Scientists take all the fun out of science, double-checking and questioning results that fly in the face of orthodoxy.  Pfui, sez I.  Now we have the inconstancy denialists. 

I had begun to wonder whether the directionality had to do with the solar system's motion through the aether, aka black matter.  Or that of the spiral arm.  After all, if there really was a directional difference that just happened to coincide with which galaxies could be seen with which telescope, the two would be confounded. 

Monday, September 13, 2010

Stranger Things, Horatio. Stranger Things.

A team of astrophysicists based in Australia and England has uncovered evidence that the laws of physics are different in different parts of the universe

The report describes how one of the supposed fundamental constants of Nature appears not to be constant after all. Instead, this 'magic number' known as the fine-structure constant -- 'alpha' for short -- appears to vary throughout the universe.
"After measuring alpha in around 300 distant galaxies, a consistency emerged: this magic number, which tells us the strength of electromagnetism, is not the same everywhere as it is here on Earth, and seems to vary continuously along a preferred axis through the universe," Professor John Webb from the University of New South Wales said.
Skiffy Connections?
If the laws of physics turn out to be merely 'local by-laws', it might be that whilst our observable part of the universe favours the existence of life and human beings, other far more distant regions may exist where different laws preclude the formation of life, at least as we know it."
And if we have a far future intergalactic space opera (with Space Princesses, of course) what happens to the electromagnetic equipment on the ship?  Are neural impulses electromagnetic?  Any physicists out there?

Add this to the dark energy and "lithium-free bubble" comments earlier, our local neighborhood begins to look a lot more user friendly than the rest of the Stuff out there. 

Saturday, September 11, 2010

How Long Do Some People Remember Historical Dates?


Jan Sobieski.  

On September 10, 1683, the papal legate sang a great outdoor mass on the Kahlenberg, west of Vienna, for King Jan III Sobieski and his 16,000 troops. The king of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth had been named commander of the field army of some 85,000 troops, including not only the Polish–Lithuanian contingent, but also troops of the Habsburg Monarchy, Bavaria, Saxony, Franconia, Swabia, the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, and the Zaporozhian Cossacks -- collectively: the Holy League.

This is Kewl

Friday, September 10, 2010

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Whipped to a Frenzy by... Something

Recently, the NYTimes reported on a gunman who had taken over the offices of the Discovery Channel.  They Gray Lady described the gunman's motives thusly:

Police officers shot and killed a gunman with a history of protesting against the Discovery Channel, the authorities said, ending a nearly four-hour ordeal on Wednesday at the company’s headquarters in Silver Spring, Md.

Police officials said the company had identified the gunman to them as James J. Lee. A Web site run by Mr. Lee, SaveThePlanetProtest.com, was established in January 2008. The Web site complains that the Discovery Channel produces programs about the environment for profit, not for humanitarian reasons.

Oh, that nasty profit motive.  How dare Discovery try to make money!  But wait....  Here is Lee's manifesto, at least in part...
Focus must be given on how people can live WITHOUT giving birth to more filthy human children ... All programs on Discovery Health-TLC must stop encouraging the birth of any more parasitic human infants and the false heroics behind those actions. In those programs' places, programs encouraging human sterilization and infertility must be pushed. All former pro-birth programs must now push in the direction of stopping human birth, not encouraging it... Also, keep out the fraudulent peace movements. They are liars and fakes and had no real intention of ending the wars. ALL OF THEM ARE FAKE! On one hand, they claim they want the wars to end, on the other, they are demanding the human population increase. World War II had 2 Billion humans and after that war, the people decided that tripling the population would assure peace. WTF??? STUPIDITY! MORE HUMANS EQUALS MORE WAR!... Civilization must be exposed for the filth it is. That, and all its disgusting religious-cultural roots and greed. Broadcast this message until the pollution in the planet is reversed and the human population goes down! Programs must be developed to find solutions to stopping ALL immigration pollution and the anchor baby filth that follows that. ... Find solutions FOR these countries so they stop sending their breeding populations to the US and the world to seek jobs and therefore breed more unwanted pollution babies. FIND SOLUTIONS FOR THEM TO STOP THEIR HUMAN GROWTH AND THE EXPORTATION OF THAT DISGUSTING FILTH! (The first world is feeding the population growth of the Third World and those human families are going to where the food is! They must stop procreating new humans looking for nonexistant jobs!) Find ways so that people don't build more housing pollution which destroys the environment to make way for more human filth! Find solutions so that people stop breeding

Aside from the inability to hit the "carriage return" can we find some common element running through this screed?  The NYTimes thought it was Discovery Channel making environmental shows for profit.  Maybe a close reading of the text can find a hint, perhaps a trace of some other motive. 

(h/t Mark Shea)

It has been truly said that at the bottom one often finds a deep-seated hatred of children. 

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

There's a Bimbo on the Cover of the Book

The Forest of Time ebook will include my three poems
  1. "The Engineer Discourses on His Love"
  2. "Has Poetry a Place in Science Fiction" and the classic
  3. "There's a Bimbo on the Cover of the Book."  
Because of this last poem, which is to come first in the book, the publisher proposes the following cover. 

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Sometimes, You Wanna Just Have Fun

Absence of Evidence Is Evidence of Absence

A physicist named Victor Stenger seems willing to contribute to the mounting pile of evidence that those trained in the metrical properties of physical bodies can't do metaphysics for dog barf.  We will try to accommodate him.

Yes, it's the auld God-does-not-exist-and-I-can-prove-it foolishness through *Science!* 

Believe it or don't believe it, sez I; but don't believe you don't have to believe it. 

Like many narrowly trained, he extends his own tool kit into domains of discourse for which it is not suited, much like a plumber who comes to counsel your teenager on his anxieties.  In particular, terms are always to be understood in the casual ways in which he understands them.  Dr. Stenger would not tolerate this sort of thing if the subject were physics.  "Dark Matter?  Well, dark means it's not lit up, so if we shine a light on it, we should see it."  This would induce a similar eye-rolling to some of the usages in the essay. 

But in any case, said essay provides a number of tasty tidbits for our intellectual noshing. 

Saturday, September 4, 2010

The Adventures of Dark Energy and Lithium Abundance

Sounds like good names for a pair of super-heroes....

1. The Mystery of Dark Energy
Scientists say that the expansion of the universe is accelerating.  The evidence for this is that the most distant supernovas are dimmer (thus, farther away) than they should be, absent acceleration. 

The usual epicycle to explain this away is the mysterious Dark Energy. 

However, Dark Energy apparently violates conservation of energy, which is considered a major faux pas.  Also the usual calculations for vacuum energy are way smaller than that which Dark Energy must have.  Way smaller.  Like 120 times smaller, which is bad. 

2. The Missing Lithium
Big Bang models predict how much Stuff was produced by the Bang.  Hydrogen, deuterium and helium-4 pretty much match these predictions, which is good. 

But there is only about a third the amount of lithium as there "should" be, which is bad. 

Now on the face of it, this "falsifies" the Big Bang, which is not only bad, but worse. 

Fortunately, as Pierre Duhem pointed out, there are always multiple hypotheses being tested and when a prediction doesn't happen like it should, it's not always clear which of the many assumptions have been falsified.  (A classic example is the way heliocentrism was falsified by the lack of stellar parallax.  Turned out, the lack of parallax falsified the distance to the stars, which had been based on apparent relative brightness and diameter.  Seems they are farther than 70 million miles away!  Which is good.) 

3. A Mark of a Promising Theory
A new theory in physics looks promising when it not only explains the problem it was developed to solve, but also solves another problem in some unrelated area. 

Two Cape Town physicists -- Marco Regis and Chris Clarkson -- came up with an explanation for the lithium shortage.  Turns out, it also explains why the farthest supernovas look too dim.  If it pans out, we can explain the latter without any "accelerated expansion" or "dark energy" at all.  Which is good. 

Prof. Regis is the Marco of the promising theory.  You knew I couldn't pass that by. 

But the solution has a problem of its own, which is bad. 

4. Farewell, Nick
To wit: we abandon the Copernican Principle, an a priori metaphysical assumption that states that the universe is the same everywhere and on all scales; i.e., no "privileged place." 

Abandoning this metaphysic makes the supernovae easy to explain: The universe is not homogeneous at the largest scale and the earth is "sitting at the centre of some kind of giant void in a much larger universe." 

By the same token, lithium is not evenly distributed and our "bubble" happens to be a Lithium Desert.

And why should Stuff be evenly distributed?  It's only a metaphysical assumption. Right?  But metaphysical assumptions are harder to abandon than a mere physical theory!  The Big Bang will go on the ash heap of history before we give up Ockham's Razor!  And the Copernican principle is most devoutly held by moderns. 

That stuff is not evenly distributed is one thing.  Big deal.  But that the earth really is at the center of the world is much more difficult to accept.  Modern a priori commitments make it hard to shake the Earth-is-not-special meme.