About those gravitational waves and ripples in space-time

Physics Professor Mano Singham directs us to this Nature science video.

It is a good video; note that it appears that what is actually being detected is akin to a type of vector calculus curl.

March 17, 2014 Posted by | cosmology, physics, science | | Leave a comment

Science: skepticism of new findings and explaining it to the public …plus one more Ryan comment

Are we seeing gravitational ripples from the big bang? It is possible.

But announcements of new discoveries or announcements that a long standing model has been modified or even overturned SHOULD be treated with skepticism. That it takes a long time for a new idea to take root in science is NOT a bug but rather a DESIRED feature. Sadly, many, including many in the mainstream media, do not know this. Get a load of this headline from NPR:

Not-So-Objective Scientists Cling To Accepted Wisdom

Overturning scientific dogma is tricky. Reporter Joe Palca tells NPR’s Rachel Martin that one astronomer learned that lesson when he calculated that the universe was younger than colleagues believed.

Note: the paper in question was reviewed for publication and then….published. That is hardly “censorship of new ideas”. Of course, some scientists behave badly but on the whole, existing theory will be modified as new evidence comes in. But proposed new evidence SHOULD be treated with skepticism. That is so difficult for many non-scientists to understand and evidently impossible for NPR to understand.

Speaking of taking science to the public: this 12 minute video from 60 symbols is interesting. A physicist gave a popular lecture and made the comment to the effect “no two electrons in the universe can have the same energy level; hence when one electron changes energy level, all of the rest of the electrons in the universe are affected, hence everything is connected.” Now strictly speaking, the Pauli Exclusion Principle says that no two electrons can have exactly the same quantum state, so if an individual electron changes state, that “affects” the rest of the electrons. This really isn’t controversial.

But of course, some physicists corrected him, and other people went crazy with the woo-woo (common interconnected consciousness, etc.)

60 symbols comments on that. They talk about physics, about how woo-woos misuse physics and about talking to the general public about technical science ideas.

Bonus: some politics
Paul Ryan’s comment: no he isn’t racist but his ideas are dated. Still, I don’t think that Mr. Ryan was using the “too lazy to work” canard but rather “the lack of role models…e. g. seeing your parents go to work” situation.

March 17, 2014 Posted by | cosmology, economy, nature, physics, politics/social, science, social/political | , , | Leave a comment

Sensationalistic titles of science announcements

Workout notes -3 F outside but sunny; still I ran inside.
First I went on treadmill 1: ran at mostly 0.5 incline and changed speed every 5 minutes. Then at 10:10 mpm I did 10 x (2 minutes 0 elevation, 2 minutes at elevation) going 1-2-3-3-3-3-3-3-3-3 and then 2 minutes to get to 1:01:55 (6 miles).

Switched treadmills then varied the speed to make 2 more miles (21:22).

the plan was to really gun the last 2 miles (at a tempo pace) but the hill repetitions took more out of me than I had anticipated. The intensity: what I call “projected marathon pace”: no I couldn’t actually run a marathon at 10:10 minutes per mile, but this is still a useful training intensity for me, especially for hill repetitions.

Note: I still have to focus; I almost stepped off of the treadmill surface when a nearby woman went into “child” pose (facing away from me, of course).

Stephen Hawking has some questions about black holes, with regards to the “event horizon”. Of course, it was known long ago that one could have some “Hawking radiation” from these; basically particles can materialize from the quantum vacuum (pair production) and then one of the newly created particles could get sucked into the black hole, leaving the other suddenly unpaired particle as radiation. (yes, this is grossly oversimplified)

But there are unsolved problems, and so Hawking’s new paper deals with these.

But the headlines read: “Hawking says that black holes don’t exist”. Uh…no. He didn’t say that.

January 28, 2014 Posted by | cosmology, physics, running, science | Leave a comment

Objections to Copernicus: some were valid science objections.

This short article in Scientific American is very interesting (it is behind a paywall).

But this is the idea: it took science a long, long time to accept Copernicus’ heliocentric astronomy. True, Galileo saw the phases of Venus and the moons around Jupiter which blew conventional geocentric astronomy out of the water, but there was a “every planet except the earth orbits the sun” model which kept earth fixed.

Why the fixation on keeping the earth fixed? Yes, there were religious objections, but there were scientific objections as well:

1. The earth was known to be massive and scientists at the time knew that it was difficult to move heavy objects. What in the world could move something as massive as the earth?

2. Instruments of the time couldn’t detect stellar parallax. This meant that the stars were a huge distance away. But notice that the stars appear to have a measurable width to them; in fact they should be a “point” of light but that light is smeared out into a disk. At the time, this effect was NOT understood. Hence, a star that was so absurdly far away (as to not show parallax) that appeared to be that wide would have to be absurdly huge, even when compared to our sun.

How do you resolve these two “facts”: great distance and huge size?

Even when heliocentric astronomy became accepted, scientists admitted that there were other problems that cropped up; these problems were not to be resolved until much later.

So, the push-back against Copernican astronomy was NOT entirely religious; scientists of the day had reasonable objections to the theory, and defenders of the then-new theory resorted to….well…appeals to the supernatural and to philosophy to explain away the difficulties.


I admit that I cringed when I saw the title of the article and started to read it. Yes, it was a well written, very intelligent article. And yes, I’ll gladly recommend it to my smarter, more scientifically minded and interested friends. But….there is this…..

“SEE, Science is wrong all of the time!”

(uh, on the whole, science eventually gets it right….you are seeing this on a computer, aren’t you? )

“Hey, they laughed at Einstein”

(uh, as a unknown graduate student, Einstein got his work published in a top flight peer reviewed physics journal; in fact he got 4 of them. Where are your peer reviewed publications? Besides those who came up with the big new ideas are intellectual outliers who completely understood science and the then current theories. You are not one of those, and no, having a good SAT score, passing an undergraduate course or even getting a Ph. D. doesn’t make you that sort of outlier.)

“My ideas are new and radical”

(yes, and most non-mainstream ideas are completely wrong; it is just that we never hear about the vast majority of the wrong ones. What reason have you given for anyone to take the time to listen to you?).

Bottom line: established scientific ideas are sometimes overthrown or superseded or modified, but only rarely and only after a LOT of difficult checking and cross checking by a LOT of smart people ….and they find the new idea promising enough to give in a thorough examination.

January 7, 2014 Posted by | astronomy, physics, science | | 1 Comment

Misconceptions, sensationalism and science

Economics Austerity: does it work? Evidence is scant.

We are adding jobs. All isn’t rosy but things are somewhat better:

Still, unlike some other months that presented decidedly contradictory signals, many of the underlying factors identified by government statisticians at least pointed in the right direction. Hourly earnings, as well as the length of the typical workweek, both increased. The overall labor participation rate, while still low by historical standards, rose two-tenths of a percentage point to 63 percent.

At the same time, jobs were added to a broad range of sectors, rather than restricted to a few, lower-paying areas.

Manufacturing, closely watched because its ups and downs serve as a bellwether of the overall economy, added 27,000 workers. Besides that jump, Mr. Gapen of Barclays said he was also glad to see that the construction sector gained jobs for the third month in a row, indicating that housing continues to rebound.

Protons, of course, are made up of subatomic particles. It turns out that the total mass of a proton doesn’t change over a superlong period of time. One might ask: “well, why would it?” But this is one of those fundamental questions that should be asked.

Lots of times, authors of pop-science articles and books will take a routine fact, loudly proclaim that this fact “kills well known theory/hypothesis/metaphor X” (even if all it does is kill a simplistic caricature of it) and then get blistered by other scientists. Here is such a case; here someone claims that the “Selfish Gene” metaphor is dead. Richard Dawkins says: “Really? I think not.”:

Over at Richard Dawkins’s own site, he’s responded to Dobbs’s misguided critique of the “gene-centered” view of evolution as described in The Selfish Gene. Richard’s piece is called “Adversarial journalism and the selfish gene.“ He’s remarkably polite for a man who’s been trashed in such an unfair (and erroneous) manner, and politely though firmly explains that, yes, he knows about regulatory genes and that, as we know, they’re simply selfish genes that regulate other selfish genes. He compares the toolbox of regulatory genes (a simile the biologist Sean Carroll also uses) to the subroutines of a Macintosh. and then notes:

Does Dobbs, then, really expect me to be surprised to learn from him that:

“This means that we are human, rather than wormlike, flylike, chickenlike, feline, bovine, or excessively simian, less because we carry different genes from those other species than because our cells read differently.”

Does Dobbs really think the existence of genes controlling the expression of other genes is either a surprise to me or remotely discomfiting to the theory of the selfish gene? Genes controlling other genes are exactly the kind of genes I have in mind when I speak of “selfish genes” as the “immortal replicators”, the “units of natural selection”.

Jerry Coyne (a biologist) says more here.

Larry Moran (a biochemist) mostly likes Coyne’s critique, but has some quibbles with it.

The upshot: a biochemist looks, of course, at the molecules and is apt to characterize evolution (a change in the frequency distribution of alleles with time) at the molecular level; the biologists tend to look more at the bodies, organs, etc.

In this case, Moran is more from what I’d call “pluralistic mechanisms for evolution” camp (assigning heavier weight to thinks like random genetic drift, in which neutral mutations (no effect on reproductive success) account for much of the variation) whereas Coyne has been called a neo-Darwinian (Natural Selection is the overwhelming factor, though other factors (such as drift) influence evolution).

This is the type of thing smart accomplished scientists argue about.

Speaking of evolution and biology This is an interesting result in cancer research.

The rough idea is this: cells use something called a “replication fork” when they reproduce. Sometimes this fork breaks. Healthy cells use one mechanism to repair a damaged “replication fork” whereas cancerous cells use a different one.

This might provide insight on how to fight some cancers.

December 8, 2013 Posted by | biology, economics, economy, evolution, physics, science | , , | 1 Comment

The open mind, the so-called political center and the nonsense….

Politics What is the US political center anyway? Basically, there are populists (socially conservative, but shares “economic fairness” arguments with liberals) and libertarians (socially liberal, but staunchly pro-free market) among others; the upshot is that there is really not a situation to make a party out of this group.

Medicine and anatomy

This is astonishing to me:

WHEN the news broke recently that a team of Belgian scientists had “discovered” a new body part — a ligament located just outside the knee — the first place my mind went was to Padua.

Padua is the small city in northern Italy where the 16th-century Brussels-born scientist Andreas Vesalius taught anatomy and created his history-making masterpiece, “De Humani Corporis Fabrica” (“On the Fabric of the Human Body”), published in 1543. The old man would have been delighted by the news, I couldn’t help thinking.

Really: we are still learning things AT THIS LEVEL? Well, read the article to see the various factors as to why this really isn’t that surprising after all. This is probably why medicine is so difficult.

“Open minded-ness”: To me, a “good” open mind is one that is open to new EVIDENCE; remember that there is more “noise” than signal out there.

One often hears about how “even Einstein had something good to say about religion (“science without religion is lame”); but remember that Einstein rejected the idea of a personal deity. Jerry Coyne explains it further in this New Republic article.

You hear anti-scientific bunk from “anti-GMO activists” along with other stuff (example).

The bottom line: science is hard and some scientific facts, even non-quantum physics facts, are difficult to impossible to grasp without a command of mathematics (e. g. angular momentum) I’ve linked to other examples here.

But on the other hand, “good math” doesn’t mean “accurate model”.

December 6, 2013 Posted by | economics, mathematics, physics, religion, science | , , | Leave a comment

A bit of science for a chilly day…

Is science a type of faith? Jerry Coyne says “no!” and I agree with him. Read his piece in Slate. Remember that ideas get abandoned when they have been shown to either not work or to not be useful.

Traffic jams: I don’t like them either, but some of these can be modeled by using the principles of fluid dynamics. Upshot: proper speed changes can avert SOME of these.

Some fluids change their viscosity and can turn into a solid, albeit briefly.

Evolution in action
This insect has evolved “ant” mimics on its wings to deter predators.


Galaxies can take several shapes; this article is about “ring” galaxies.

Classical Mechanics
Here is a demonstration of angular momentum.

It is a non-intuitive concept; Mano Singham (physicist) explains it here.

November 15, 2013 Posted by | astronomy, biology, evolution, physics, science | , | Leave a comment

Woo, education, politics, and yoga pants on motor bikes

Workout notes 5K today in 28:02; I went to the track and ran: 9:38 (after a 5 minute first half mile), 8:32, 8:28 (17:00 2 mile), 1:23 cool down lap. During the last mile: I tried to do it under 8 and was under the pace with 2 laps (400 meters) to go, but I was miserable and out of breath so I walked/jogged a bit prior to finishing.

I am so going to DIE this Saturday. :-)

Note: during class, my right shoulder ached a bit. Not sure as to what is going on.


Woo woo: Sam Harris debates Deepak Chopra. His strongest point: Harris makes the point that quantum mechanics does provide counter intuitive results and its results (along with relativity theory) does contradict classical physics. But this does NOT mean that “if something is counterintuitive, it must be valid because QM is”. In fact, most counter intuitive stuff is…well, false.

Superstition: no, I am NOT making this up:

As reported in depth by Lexington NBC affiliate LEX18, Whitley County High (Whitley County, Kent.) cross country runner Codie Thacker voluntarily forfeited her spot in a regional championship race after her coach drew bib number 666 for the runner. Thacker and her coach argued that she should be allowed to switch her number, but race officials refused the request.

Those officials would later deny that Thacker claimed she needed to change bib numbers for religious reasons, though the junior insists she was explicit about her motivation. To her, running with the number 666 on her chest would have signified a serious breach in her faith.

Disclaimer: I might have put an extra “1″ in magic marker or something. But seriously, this is beyond stupid and shows the power of superstition.

Politics Robert Reich and Paul Krugman on yesterday’s elections. Their takes are a bit add odds with one another; Krugman says that the political climate in 2014 will almost certainly be different (e. g. if Obamacare’s website glitches get worked out, it will be a plus; it will be a minus) whereas Reich points out that New York City elected a tax-the-rich leftist and that most states have a large city in them. We’ll see; I tend to agree with Krugman here, though I’d love to see New Jersey’s result as meaningless and Virginia’s as important. :-)

I might blog about this on my college math teaching blog, but there are some serious issues to ponder in today’s higher education climate:

1. Are professors lowering standards so as to reduce student/parental complaints to administration?

2. What about the tendency for some universities to fill out classes with students who have only a marginal chance of success? Is this “giving someone a chance” or is it “padding the tuition income via the academically hopeless”?

I don’t think that the answers are crystal clear.

Yoga pants and motor bikes
This is a variation of “twerking”: have a woman get on the back of a motorbike (holding onto the driver): have her wear yoga pants and push her rear end out. Put a camera on the bike pointing at her rear end. Seriously (possibly NSFW; the lady is clothed but it is a closeup of her be-spandexed rear-end jiggling).

People are creative.

November 6, 2013 Posted by | big butts, education, physics, politics, politics/social, running, science, social/political, spandex | , , , , | Leave a comment

United States: two ends of the intellectual spectrum.

A physics note: Englert and Higgs won the Nobel Prize for physics for their work on how particles acquire mass (by passing through a field).

Ying/Yang of living in the United States of America

On one hand: we have MIT. Here, scientists have developed a new type of self-assembling robot.

At Livermore Lab: scientists have gotten nuclear fusion past the break even point (more energy released than used to start the reaction to begin with.

So, on the coasts, some interesting science research.

But in the halls of Congress: we have a US Representative (Michele Bachmann) babbling about “end times”. Yes, there are millions of Americans who don’t find such talk “crazy”. Sigh.

October 8, 2013 Posted by | morons, physics, religion, science, technology | , , | Leave a comment

A kid’s question and a teacher’s answer

I chuckled at this “poe” meme:


But that reminded me of a question I had when I was a grade school kid. I have an interest in astronomy but I was, well, very naive. I had read that solar eclipses were rare things but I didn’t understand why they were rare.

Our school had something similar to this model of our solar system, and our version had a moon that went around the earth.


So, I asked the teacher about the model; she attempted to explain it to me. Then I asked: “why isn’t there a solar eclipse every time the moon goes around the earth…she didn’t get the question at first. So I showed her that, according to the model, the moon would frequently be between the earth and the sun at least once every lunar orbit.

She “got it” and then said “I don’t know”.

I looked for the answer in astronomy books (I didn’t know educated people) and it took a while for me to find the answer. Reason: my question was not the kind of question that elementary school teachers thought of, and it was too dumb of a question for a “serious” astronomy book to handle.

I wonder if there are other questions of this type out there.

September 26, 2013 Posted by | astronomy, physics, science | | 3 Comments


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 645 other followers