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

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Clearing the Tabs

Deja Vu All Over Again
Check out the four video clips here. Plus ça change and all that. Clinton is especially interesting, though no one later accused him of lying.

How to Spot Bad Science


Unclear on the Concept of "Nothing"
The slit experiment: not just for
electrons any more!
The paper: "A Mathematical Proof That The Universe Could Have Formed Spontaneously From Nothing" describes how fluctuations in the metastable false vacuum could have caused a bubble to form that might expand into a universe. Although if the metastable false vacuum is nothing, it's hard to see how it might have fluctuations. Of course, Tycho had a mathematical proof that the stars could not be terribly far away, so mathematical proofs only take you so far. The benefit of the new model is that it employs non-Copenhagenish quantum mechanics; viz., the standing wave theory of de Broglie and (more recently) Bohm. Physicists are unwilling to abandon Bohr for Bohm, even though they differ only in their final consonant because (wait for it) the standing wave theory explains everything the Copenhagen theory does. To a layman, this may not seem like a problem, but scientists are conservative critters and are unwilling to shift paradigms in mistream. Just as they once demanded of Galileo, they demand that the "new" theory explain things better. 

In any case, whatever the merits of standing waves over quantum weirdness, it is clear that they are still unclear on what is meant by "nothing."

What Naturalism sounds like to natural theologians

Courtesy of James Chastek:
Assume you’re an intellectual living in Alexandria around 350 AD. Euclideanism is a runaway favorite for the most effective scientific system of all time. It’s successfully determined the size of the earth, it’s been used to make a system of astronomy so precise that no one has improved on its accuracy for centuries, it’s built devices that can measure the distance of ships or allow for perspective in architecture, it’s showed the governing ratios for art, painting, sculpture, and the proportions of natural bodies. Plato has insisted that everyone learn it before they attend his ancient academy, some neo-Platonists mimic Euclid’s framework, and Aristotle’s whole theory of science takes it as a point of departure. The science has lead to many conclusions that seem shocking to common sense (like asymptotes, irrational numbers, angles less than any given angle…), while at the same time being based on principles that seem irrefutable and self evident.
You, however, work in a comparatively small backwater of inquiry: the nature of mathematicals.
(Read More)
Another Blow Struck for the Stagirite
It looks like electrons are not atoms, after all. The atoms, recall, were featureless, indivisible point-particles. But now it seems some folks have successfully divided the electron. "The electron's wave function," our friend Figulus tells us, "is governed by Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, just like everything else in quantum mechanics, and so its wave function extends over space, which means it is not a point particle in the relevant sense."

Unnatural Motion
It turns out that humans can make alloys unknown to nature. By turning up the pressure we can cause atoms to combine in ways the conventional laws say are impossible.
In spite of salt being one of the most thoroughly studied chemical compounds out there, the researchers predicted the formation of compounds forbidden by classical chemistry, such as Na3Cl and NaCl3. Their predictions were proven by subsequent experiments.
 Who knows what lurks on the high pressure surface of Venus?

The Oddities of Life

Participants in an innovative Washington State University study of deadly force were more likely to feel threatened in scenarios involving black people. But when it came time to shoot, participants were biased in favor of black suspects, taking longer to pull the trigger against them than against armed white or Hispanic suspects...
Of course, "taking longer" meant "240 milliseconds." But it was "more than chance" and had wee p-values to prove it. Anything with "social science" and "statistics" involved should be taken with a grain of salt. Still, it was contrary to expectations and that is generally less suspicious than confirming pre-conceived notions. But....

The BadScience List

Simcha Fisher lists several pitfalls that a person should avoid when trying to evaluate the reliability of a report in a field in which one is not well-versed.
  • Mistrusting a knowledgeable person because he expresses his ideas in an unpleasant way.
  • Mistrusting a knowledgeable person simply because he said something that makes you mad or upset or scared.
  • Trusting a knowledgeable person simply because he said something that makes you feel happy or peaceful or contented. 
  • Trusting a knowledgeable person simply because he has a degree or went to a certain school.
  • Mistrusting a knowledgeable person because you disagree with him about unrelated things. (E.g., just because Dawkins doesn't know jack about theology doesn't make him untrustworthy in biology.)
  • Trusting a knowledgeable person simply because he agrees with you about other things. (E.g., just because Dawkins knows biology doesn't make him trustworthy in theological matters.)
  • Trusting a knowledgeable person because it would be uncharitable to question his findings, or because his personal life is difficult at the moment. 
  • Trusting a knowledgeable person because he has published a study in a scientific journal. 
  • Trusting a knowledgeable person who says things that you don’t understand at all.  
So the reliability of that study in the Journal of Experimental Criminology just mentioned should not be evaluated based on whether we find its results agreeable or disagreeable, or because it was published in a peer-reviewed journal, or any other bogus reason.
"For the usual thing among men is that when they want something they will, without any reflection, leave that to hope, while they will employ the full force of reason in rejecting what they find unpalatable."
-- Thucydides History of the Peloponnesian War, Book IV, 108


  1. Given that you've written on this topic before, I thought you might be interested in this fascinating news story:

    1. Indeed:
      and elsewhere.

    2. Honestly, I am no neurologist, but every time physicians get puzzled by such cases I get puzzled too...
      My point is, if brain functions are, in fact, the result of the collective work of neurons, just like the heath function is the result of the collective work of cardiac cells, do they really expect such work to depend strongly from the position, as if if you were to find a guy with the hearth on the right you were to expect it to work in a crazy different way? This is what I get from reading on such cases, but if the brain is maybe the most dynamic human organ, can't the body just adapt its part in position Y to do what does missing spatial portion X?

      As for the "small volumes yet functioning", well, we know well that there can be far different volume efficiencies... you know, as far as I get no significant anomaly has been found in their brain dimension, but "part about empathy" has deeply different performances in a Dawkins and a Mother Teresa....

  2. Re. indivisible electrons, the article indicates "the separation of the electron into independent quasi-particles that carry either spin (spinons) or charge (holons) was first observed fifteen years ago". Though during my education in physics 30 years ago, I dont recall anyone thinking electrons cound not be split; rather, with enough energy anything would split. (The Stagirite won but never got the recognition.)

    Did you catch the news on Monday about Rosetta and Philae? It has been ten years since launch and 6.4 billion km of travel, but soon the ESA will land a spacecraft on comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko. The "Where is Rosetta" tool and the "Tale of Tails" cartoon captivated my kids.

  3. No. Electrons can't really be split (so far as we know). This is a classic case of #1 and #2 in the bad science list cited above.

    The key words in that article are "copper-oxide compound Sr2CuO3", and "in particular materials".

    What's really going on is that *in these materials* there are effective wave/particles which behave as though they had just charge or just spin. But these aren't actually fundamental particles out of which the electron is made. Quite on the contrary, they are collective excitations of the material, which is in turn made out of regular electrons, protons, and neutrons. In other words, these "spinons" and "holons" are themselves composite entities, not substructure for the electron!

    By the way, you should trust me because I am a knowledgeable person with a Ph.D and an elite postdoc in physics, and because I liked Eifelheim.

    1. Well, shoot, even the ontological status of electrons is still unsettled. But divisible in philosophy does not mean physically splitting a material object. It means having "parts." That the spin and charge can be separated is sufficient. They no more need to be "fundamental particles" than do electrons themselves.

    2. Yes, but I would question whether the charge and spin have "really" been separated in the examples described in the article. Let me give an example. Suppose you have two boxes, A and B. Box A contains a single electron; box B is empty.

      Now let's create a proton-antiproton pair, and put the proton in box A, and the antiproton in box B. Now box A contains an ordinary hydrogen atom (which is electrically neutral) while box B contains an antiproton (charge -1, just like the electron).

      Would you say, in this example, that the charge of the electron has been "separated" from the physical location of the electron? I wouldn't, since the electron still has -1 charge in this example. It's just that the effects of this charge are screened by the addition of the proton (at distances much larger than the Bohr radius).

      If you wouldn't say that the charge has been separated from the electron in this example, then you shouldn't say it about Sr2CuO3 either, since it's basically the same type of situation. The charge and/or spin of the electron is just being screened by adding additional materials with opposite charge or spin.

  4. Nit-pick, but while high-pressure compounds are Way Cool (as a PhD chemist, no less), the pressures involved are *really high.* Venus is a piker; we get tens or hundreds of times Venus' surface pressure in any gas storage cylinder.

  5. A few years ago, I found that a JavaScript program I had been working on had a bug in it: Some of the variables had not been initialized and, instead of being empty strings, printed out "undefined" when I tried displaying them. A proof that the universe can develop from the physical equivalent of an empty string is not the same as a proof it can develop out of nothing.


Whoa, What's This?

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