Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Scientific Elitism

Darwin's 'bulldog', Thomas Huxley, was a chief
proponent of Darwinistic ideas and tried to
suppress the influence of creationism in academia.  

 As a benefit of attending a largely Christian university trying to establish itself in the world of research academies, I have had the opportunity to take part in a Science and Religion seminar.  It was a great review of some the topics and issues in the debate and it was held in such a way that no agendas were diguisingly (or blatantly) given as 'truth'.  It was a great open forum (with some great lunches provided by the faculty dining center)!  

A few times during this seminar the issue of elitism among the scientific communities was raised.  This began in Europe shortly after Darwinian ideas started to take hold.  Efforts by those in the X club and others so like-minded, wanted to maintain a hold on the academic community and weed out creationists and anti-evolutionaries. (note: here I use the term 'creationism' in the most general sense. It is the idea that the world/universe/whatever was created/guided/organized by some form of deity and is not strictly 'young earth' creationism.)  In order to do so, they pushed the need for more advanced training to occur among 'professional' scientists in order to widen the gap between the two worlds.   Obviously there are some good results of this movement: higher quality research being chief among them.  There are some downsides too.

We have all been to conferences where 'that guy' gives the talk and has to battle his way through contentious comments or automatically dismissive audiences.  You can feel bad for the guy even if his ideas are just plain crazy or they never have the benefit of taking an actual class in quantum theory. This form of elitism shows the human side of scientists and can also be seen in the difficulty in getting published by peer-review (especially if the editor/reviewers just don't like you or your research).  

Last week, the BBC reported on the American Physical Society’s (APS) attempts to give a place for ‘crackpots’ to share their ideas.  In so doing, they indirectly admit to elitism and that there may be merit to proposals made by some mathematically-untrained conference presenters. 

The issue is that some who are considered crackpots just don’t have the language (i.e. mathematical background) to communicate their ideas effectively to the physics community.  They cite an example of a Nobel in Chemistry being awarded to a man who, for years, was ridiculed.  When he was finally able to share his ideas effectively, they were accepted and rewarded. 

The solution is to give a special disguised conference session to those with ‘crazy’ ideas.  Is it a “good” solution... I guess that we’ll have to wait to find out.
Here is a link to the article.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Misconceptions of Misconceptions of Physics

On YouTube there is a channel that I like to watch called MinutePhysics. Normally the short videos are pretty good and the channel creator does a good job at explaining some common (and some uncommon) physics in a short and intuitive way. So I was rather surprised when he posted a video about common misconceptions in physics that itself perpetuated common misconceptions in physics. Here's the video for you to watch so I can refer to it.

There are two things that are problematic in this video that I want to address. I will give a short explanation here and then a longer explanation further down.

  1. Teaching Newtonian gravity is not lying. He is trying to make the point that light, even if it is massless, is still affected by gravity, which Newtonian gravity does not predict. True, but he makes his point by saying that teaching Newtonian gravity is lying to students. Newtonian gravity is still alive and well and is fundamental to of almost all undergraduate and even graduate (and post graduate) areas of study. The idea that teaching Newtonian gravity is wrong is a big misconception and this video simply perpetuates the misconception.
  2. Just because you have an equation that you can stick numbers into and a calculator to calculate it out to an arbitrary number of digits of precision does not mean that it has have physical meaning. I have to fight this misconception every semester with almost all of my students. It is harder to fight this misconception than it is to fight the "misconception" of a Galilean vs. Lorentz transformations.

1. Teaching Newtonian gravity is not lying.
The misconception that Newtonian gravity is fundamentally wrong, and therefore useless, is so prevalent among people that when mostly well informed individuals ask me about my research they are shocked to learn that I still use Newtonian gravity. They usually say something along the lines of, "I rememeber learning about Newton in high school/college, but you are probably way beyond that." They would be even more shocked to learn that most of the cutting edge research in physics uses Newtonian gravity and not relativity. It seems like every semester I have at least one or two students who express the idea that everything undergirding Newtonian gravity is wrong and that therefore all the collective wisdom, intuition, insight and knowledge of people who have used Newtonian gravity, or even Newtonian physics in general, is somehow invalid.

2. An equation and a calculator do not make reality.
Every semester I have to fight a major misconception with my students. I don't mean the pre-meds who take the introductory physics classes, or the "I don't know what I'm doing with my life students, but I have to take this class to get some sort of degree." students. I mean physics majors who are in their senior year and who have been through many physics classes already. I have to fight the misconception that just because the students have an equation and a calculator or computer that can calculate something to an arbitrary number of digits, that the result, to that precision, has meaning for the real world. This is a misconception that physicists of all stripes have to fight every day. And unfortunately this short video perpetuates this myth.

Let's take the sheep example. He gives an example of a sheep riding a train and says if you have a train going 2 mph and a sheep on the train is moving forward at 2 mph with respect to the train then,
2 mph + 2 mph = 4 mph
which he promptly declares to be false. He then proceeds to give a short explanation of how to add velocities in special relativity and produces the equation for adding velocities in special relativity (for those who want to know he is merely pointing out the difference between a Galilean vs. a Lorentz transformation. One assumes light has no speed limit and the other one does. But, by his definition what he presents is also false, since a Lorentz transformation is also incomplete, so he merely traded one misconception for another. Fail.).

But, according to him, if we want to be honest we have to use the special relativistic equation and see that the sheep is only moving 3.999999999999999964 mph. That is a difference of 0.000000000000000036 mph. The problem is, how did he measure that? No really! That is a perfectly valid question in physics, I am not just trying to ask a trite, funny question. If he claims that the sheep is actually moving 0.000000000000000036 mph slower than it should because of special relativistic effects then he will have to actually measure that. The problem is (as many, many, many, many of my professors over the years have pointed out), the sheep is made up of atoms. You can't calculate something, get a result and say, "This is how the world works." because you are ignoring the fact that everything is made up of real matter. You can't separate that fact or you will end up in trouble.

To give you an idea of why this is problematic let's take our result, the difference of 0.000000000000000036 mph, and see what this means. Suppose the sheep and the train move together for one hour, what would be the difference in how far they have moved based on this difference?
0.000000000000000036 mph x .44704 (m/s)/mph = 1.61e-17 m/s
(that's meters per second instead of miles per hour)
1.61e-17 m/s * 3600 s = 5.8e-14 m
So if you let the sheep walk on the train and let the train go for one hour, then after one hour the difference that you would expect between using a relativistic vs. a non-relativistic calculation would be 5.8e-14 m or about 60 femtometers. To give you an idea of how small this is that is about 4 times larger then the nucleus of a uranium atom. Not 4 times larger than a Uranium atom, 4 time larger than the nucleus, which is very, very, very small. This distance is still about 3000 times smaller than the radius of an atom.

So is it wrong to use Galilean transformations and Newton's laws? No. If you can find me a wooden meter stick that has tic marks that go down into the femtometer range then you could say that Newton was wrong. But if you can't actually measure that accurately then it is wrong to say that the standard way we think about adding velocities is wrong. Just because someone came up with an equation and you can stick the numbers into a calculator and get a result does not mean that it has any real world interpretation.

Now, as a physicist I am well aware of relativity, but this is an abuse of it. To say that Newton (and Galileo) were wrong because they didn't have access to a meter stick which measured femtometers, is itself wrong. To ignore real world considerations and then calling people who have to (and had to) deal with those real world considerations wrong is to ignore something fundamental about physics, and that is we live in a real, physical universe. And you can't ignore that fact. Even when teaching relativity.

[PS: If you want to see another example of abuse of equations, consider "Why Pigs Don't Diffract Through Doorways".]

Sunday, September 9, 2012

PhD Comics and UCI on Extra Dimensions

PhD comics say down with UC Irvine professors Daniel Whiteson and Jonathan Feng to talk about extra dimensions and their potential effect on gravity.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Penrose On Whether A Platonic Objectivity Can Exist Independent of Human Minds.

I have been rereading certain sections of The Road To Reality by the famous mathematical physicist Roger Penrose as he touches on many things near and dear to my heart.  One of these things is whether there is a real existence of objective truth independent of human minds. Penrose seems to argue such objective frameworks probably do exist and uses math as an example. He also admits by analogous reasoning one may argue an objective morality or aesthetics beyond the minds of men may also exist but in this book he is only concerned with the math. Now to quote Penrose:
Platonic existence, as I see it, refers to the existence of an objective external standard that is not dependent upon our individual opinions nor upon our particular culture. Such 'existence' could also refer to things other than mathematics, such as to morality or aesthetics, but I am here concerned just with mathematical objectivity, which seems to be a much clearer issue...
Plato himself would have insisted that there are two other fundamental absolute ideals, namely that of the Beautiful and that of the Good. I am not at all adverse to admitting the existence of such ideals, and to allowing the Platonic world to be extended so as to contain absolutes of this nature.
And now for his reasoning about math.  Though he can't prove it, he seems to believe that belief in a real objective mathematics independent of man is necessary in order to trust it and make progress. And because the robustness of math transcends the notorious untrustworthiness of human minds, it seems to have a reality that goes beyond it's creation coming from the minds of men:
Yet, there is something important to be gained in regarding mathematical structures as having a reality of their own. For our individual minds are notoriously imprecise, unreliable, and inconsistent in their judgements. The precision, reliability,  and consistency that are required by our scientific theories demand something beyond any one of our individual (untrustworthy) minds. In mathematics, we find a far greater robustness than can be located in any particular mind. Does this not point to something outside ourselves, with a reality that lies beyond what each individual can achieve?...
He then says a typical critique is that math is just a product of human minds but has these amazing properties because it has been distilled down over years to those human ideas that can consistently be shown to be true by all. He then says this line of reasoning is circular because for everyone to agree that something is right requires an external standard. (Leading us back to an external objective existence.) He then says:
Mathematics itself indeed seems to have a robustness that goes far beyond what any individual mathematician is capable of perceiving. Those who work in this subject, whether they are actively engaged in mathematical research or just using results that have been obtained by others, usually feel that they are merely explorers in a world that lies far beyond themselves--a world which possesses an objectivity that transcends mere opinion, be that opinion their own or the surmise of others, no matter how expert those others might be.
He then decides to illustrate how we might expect history to be different if math was subjective. Fermat's last theorem was proposed as being true 350 years before it was proven. If the theorem was subjective and culturally relativistic, then over 350 years with so many cultures contemplating the idea, surely a counterexample may have been constructed. Back to Penrose:
Let me illustrate this issue by considering one famous example of a mathematical truth, and relate it to the question of 'objectivity'. In 1637, Pierre de Fermat made his famous assertion now known as 'Fermat's Last Theorem.'... Fermat's mathematical assertion remained unconfirmed for over 350 years, despite concerted efforts by numerous outstanding mathematicians. A proof was finally published in 1995...
Now, do we take the view that Fermat's assertion was always true, long before Fermat actually made it, or is its validity a purely cultural matter, dependent upon whatever might be the subjective standards of the community of human mathematicians? Let us try to suppose that the validity of the Fermat assertion is in fact a subjective matter. Then it would not be an absurdity for some other mathematician X to have come up with an actual and specific counter-example to the Fermat assertion, so long as X had done this before the date of 1995...
I think that virtually all mathematicians, irrespective of their professed attitudes to 'Platonism', would regard such possibilities as patently absurd.
In conclusion: Just because humans discovered something, like math, doesn't mean they invented its  objective reality. Belief in such an objective existence independent of the minds of men leads one to be able to "feel that they are merely explorers in a world that lies far beyond themselves--a world which possesses an objectivity that transcends mere opinion." A world, as Penrose describes later, that seems to transcend time and this mortal sphere as it seems to be vastly larger then what is needed to describe this physical world and in fact would be largely unknown if we tried to limit math to that which does seem applicable to this mortal sphere. And as Penrose alludes to in the first quote, if the existence of an objective mathematics beyond the minds of men actually exists, what what other such objective frameworks my exist in reality?  I will let the readers decide for themselves but the possibility of exploring such timeless and objective "worlds that [lie] beyond ourselves" to me is fascinating.

Monday, August 6, 2012

"Dare Mighty Things"

     Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in the gray twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat. -- Teddy Roosevelt
Last night after a journey of several hundred million miles a small hunk of metal successfully touched down rather softly on the surface of Mars. 150 million miles away (and 14 minutes later) a large group of people started jumping up and down. This is the spirit of human exploration and a desire to dare mighty things.

The scientists at the JPL and NASA may just be smiling for days if not weeks.
A happy John Grunsfeld speaking with reporters after the landing.