Monday, August 28, 2006

Plutonic serenade

The inimitable Jonathan Coulton has penned a touching tribute to Pluto, narrated by the non-planet's moon Charon:
Let them shuffle the numbers
Watch them come and go
We’re the ones who are out here
Out past the edge of what they know
We can only be who we are
It doesn’t matter if they don’t understand
It's really very sweet, which is something it's easy to forget Coulton's good at; more usually, he is good at making my officemate think I'm crazy because of my hysterical cackling. I challenge you to, for instance, watch the "Flickr" video with a straight face (hint: you can't), but it's also pretty tough to read the "I'm Your Moon" lyrics without choking up a little.

If, y'know, you like Pluto.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Thanks for playing, Pluto

Well, Pluto, you had a good run. But if we let you into the club, we'd have to start letting everyone in, and then it's not a very good club, is it? So you'll have to give back your monogrammed jacket, hand in your badge and gun, or whatever it is that former planets do when they shuffle sadly out of the kids' songs, mnemonic devices, and orreries of the world.

I have to say, I feel kind of bad for Pluto. It's not because of the stupid cartoon dog! It's because when I went to college, everybody had an imposter complex -- everyone thought she was secretly an admissions mistake -- and that has never really stopped for me. Imagine the shame and indignity of knowing for hundreds of years that you're not really a planet, that you can't really hang with the cool kids, that you're just there by mistake until someone notices... and then imagine them actually noticing and calling you on it. Mortifying! I mean, you think Pluto didn't know it couldn't really cut it as a planet? You think it wasn't waiting for the other shoe to drop?

The answer, of course, is no, it did not know, because it is a large chunk of rock and ice. But I have a well-documented problem with anthropomorphism, so please leave me to my grief.

Goodbye, Pluto. I suppose My Very Eager Mother will now Just Serve Us Nectarines, or Napkins, or Nickelback. I'll miss you and the irregular orbit that turned out to be your tragic flaw.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

More on dark matter

I blogged a rather hurried apology to dark matter yesterday, but today I read Boing Boing's collection of links, none of them to the somewhat science-eliding Post article. Here's the original NASA press release, and a writeup in New Scientist. The Post and New Scientist articles were obviously both drawn from the press release, but the latter is clearer on the science.

Also highly recommended is Mark's post on Good Math, Bad Math, about how the dark matter hypothesis and its apparent confirmation hinge upon the use of solid math in physics. Mark offers a lucid explanation of the data, plus a video, plus some insightful comments on math:
As I always say, one of the ways to recognize a crackpot theory in physics is by the lack of math. For an example, you can look at the electric universe folks. They have a theory, and they make predictions: but because there's no math, the predictions are vague, and there's no good way of really testing them, because there's no quantifiable way of making a precise prediction - because there's no math. So they can make predictions like "the stardust experiment will get bigger particles than they expect"; but they can't tell you how big.
I remember being charmed by Tom Siegfried's Strange Matters when we published it the last time I worked at NAP, because it was all about doing cosmology by interpreting numbers, but I hadn't thought very deeply about the mutual interreliance of math and physics. (When I defend math, it's usually only as far as math I can actually do -- i.e. explaining to people why algebra is critical knowledge.) This is an excellent explanation of why the really high-level math, the stuff that some of us might think is too lofty and theoretical, is actually an inalienable component of any decent explanation of the universe.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

I'm sorry I called you an epicycle

It appears that I owe dark matter an apology. I may be a physicist only by osmosis, but I'm a science historian by (undergraduate) training, so I've studied the fall of a lot of good-seeming ideas. I figured dark matter was just this year's epicycle; it seemed so inelegant to invent a new substance just because the numbers didn't work out. Even though I know that a lot of cosmic phenomena were discovered with number-crunching, I was much more prepared to believe that gravity operates differently under certain conditions. (After all, it's different at the very small level -- why not at the very large level?)

But now there's this front-page article from the Post:
After studying data from a long-ago collision of two giant clusters of galaxies, researchers now say they are certain dark matter does exist and plays a central role in creating and defining gravity throughout the universe.

While the scientists are still not sure exactly what dark matter is, since they have yet to identify it in a laboratory, they said that the workings of the universe cannot be explained without it.
One of the researchers is quoted as saying that "we now have direct proof" of dark matter, which of course I have to object to on a philosophical level. And unfortunately, whether it's a matter of reporting quality or experimental complexity, I can't quite tell what this all-important data was or why this constituted a risky test. One University of Maryland scientist is quoted as saying that "proof" of dark matter particles would require "grabbing them in the laboratory, not just inferring that their effects can be the only possible explanation for an observation before the alternatives have actually been checked," and I think that's more than fair. At least until I find a better explanation of the data, there's still room for skepticism.

But personally, I feel less skeptical now that there's some observation involved. Not that there wasn't observation before, but what we were observing was gaps and inconsistencies, and we made a very good guess about what caused them. Now, it appears, there's evidence. Mind you, said evidence is rather confusingly presented ("The super-hot gases have qualities that typically would have become the seat of any new gravitational fields, cosmologists say, but instead they went with the stars") but it's a far cry from "well, the orbits would work out a lot better if we put in some extra circles and moved the center point." It's starting to look like I won't get to see the rules of gravity rewritten in my lifetime.

On the flip side, though, this presents a great opportunity to market our new book on the subject!

Thursday, August 17, 2006

String theory Zen

I'm currently entering reviews of our books into the database, working against a six-month backlog. Nobody here can believe that they originally intended to have me on for only three weeks -- there's just so much to do. Anyway, this is meant to be a boring task but I find it really interesting and relaxing, especially compared to the other things I'm working on. For one thing, since I'm in publicity, the only time I get to hear about potential scientific objections or qualifications to our trade books is when expert reviewers bring them up. (This is particularly true since I'm the token Science Nerd on the marketing staff.) Plus, I get to flip through publications I can't afford to subscribe to, and see what's up.

Now, I'm working out of a huge box -- Dan and I moved our dishes in one exactly like it -- full of muddled papers. Like I said, we haven't had the manpower to get to this stuff for months. So occasionally a magazine will show up that turns out not to have any of our books in it, and I just kind of poke through it quickly and see what interests me. This is how I ended up reading a more or less positive though somewhat snarky review of Leonard Susskind's The Cosmic Landscape in a January Times Book Review section. The book is about string theory, and is amusingly illustrated with a collage picture of stars, a measuring tape (?), and dental floss. I'm not saying I understand string theory, but wow, the artist sure doesn't. (And why should s/he, really.)

The review is written by Discover editor Corey Powell, who is reportedly a great guy and certainly knows plenty about science. One of us is wrong on something, though, because I found myself very puzzled by part of the piece. Powell writes:
Furthermore, it is inevitable that we would find ourselves in a universe well-suited to life, since life can arise only in those types of universes. This circular-sounding argument -- that the universe we inhabit is fine-tuned for human biology because otherwise we would not be here to see it -- is known as the Anthropic Principle and is reviled by many cosmologists as a piece of vacuous sophistry.
Now, I think I'm confused. Is this the Anthropic Principle? (Wikipedia and her internet consorts are of little help on this one, I'm afraid.) Because I always thought the Anthropic Principle was something more like "the universe is this way because that's how humans need it to be to survive" -- a clearly absurd argument -- rather than "of course the universe is such that we can survive, else we would not have survived to ask about it." It seems more akin to the argument that humans have their specific traits (including, perhaps, the desire to believe in a designer!), not because they were made that way, but because the traits they have either were more adaptive than other traits, or came along with adaptive traits, or were sufficiently adaptive to remain. The inevitability, in other words, is in hindsight, not in design.

The pro-design argument hinging on the fact that "If gravity were slightly stronger than it is, for instance, stars would burn out quickly and collapse into black holes; if gravity were a touch weaker, stars would never have formed in the first place" (Powell) actually seems absurd to me for exactly the reason Powell is calling the Anthropic Principle -- and I hardly want to go on record saying I support the Anthropic Principle, so I'd like to get this cleared up! Is it, in fact, sophistry to say that the reason the universe operates on such principles that life on earth can exist is that, should any other circumstances have arisen, we'd hardly be any the wiser? Am I being insufficiently philosophically rigorous here? Am I unknowingly espousing a belief that amounts to intelligent design, or -- much less egregiously -- that demonstrates a vast ignorance of tricky cosmological theories?

I guess what I'm wondering is, if a universe can't support life, and no life evolves to notice, does it make a sound? And should it make a universe that can (and does) support life any more or less plausible to the life in question?

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Having your faith and eating it too

Yesterday I got my first actual religious dissenter in the comments. She is, by all appearances, a well-meaning young lady who happens to think that the Big Bang is "fake" (a usage I'm not familiar with -- unless she means the evidence was planted, or fabricated? And if so, by whom?). Anyway, I really do have some less controversial posts in the pipeline, but I want to take a moment to address why I think religion and science can coexist.

Now, as it happens, I was raised secular humanist, and at this point I consider myself an atheist. However, to me, the question of whether there is a God is a lot less important than the question of how the universe works (and, to the best of our knowledge, why it works that way). If we can agree on that -- and there's no reason we shouldn't be able to, since all of science's claims are testable and there's nobody more interested in genuine conflicting evidence than a scientist -- then religious differences should be wholly moot. After all, by the time we really find out who's right, it's too late to change our minds anyway. Personally I don't believe in God because I think that's what Occam's Razor dictates; given observation and experimentation, there's no need for us to multiply causes by postulating a supernatural hand behind every phenomenon. Beyond parsimony, though, there's no real difference between "F=ma" and "F=ma because God made it that way." The important thing is that F=ma. (If your religion is so strict that you must disagree with F=ma, please don't drive.)

My problem with religion, as it seems to be practiced by many Christians and undoubtedly by religious groups with less power and influence as well, is that it appears to be tantamount to intellectual stagnation. Let me explain why that should worry people who aren't intellectuals. In order to declare unilaterally that science must be wrong because the Bible is right, a religious person has to assume that God did not intend the human race to learn anything beyond what he (for lack of a beter pronoun) told us in our cultural childhood. Not only does this seem cruel and contradictory, but it commits the (common) error of telling a supposedly omniscient and ineffable deity what he does and does not expect of his creation. Effectively, it dismisses the entire development of civilization -- which one might imagine an omnipotent creator having some kind of hand in -- in favor of asserting a limited and limiting God, one who does not intend any development or change over his creation's lifespan. This limiting God might be psychologically easier to deal with, since he basically just tells everybody the rules one time and that's it, but he is a creation of the intellectually lazy. The God that monotheists purportedly worship is not thus to be second-guessed.

Listen: there are practical problems with believing that the Bible is the precise word of God, problems involving -- at the very least -- translation through several languages. But let's assume, for the sake of argument, that all dictation and translation went smoothly, and that the Bible as we have it in our respective native languages today is more or less exactly what God transmitted to his faithful scribes (credited and uncredited), two thousand plus years ago. Now, no matter how you slice it, that's pretty far in the past. If we go the parodically-fundamentalist route and claim that the world was created in 4004 BCE, the human race has had a whopping third of our development since the New Testament events occurred. If we choose to date the dawn of civilization back to when humans started wearing shoes, it's a much tinier percentage, but that seems like a pretty loose definition of "civilization." A quick Wikipedia search has the earliest possible evidence of agriculture showing up in the 10th century BCE, the Mesolithic period, so I'm going to go with that: on a very conservative estimate, human civilization has gone through about 20 percent of its development since the events of the New Testament, and much more since the Old Testament was written down. Add to this the fact that key events in human development may be happening at an exponentially increasing rate, and you have a very simple conclusion: We've changed since then.

Why does this matter? Well, God may have transmitted the Bible, but he was transmitting it to people who just didn't know very much. They didn't know very much in comparison to us, and they certainly didn't know very much in comparison to him. Why would we think that he could have managed -- that he would have even tried -- to explain the full range of potential knowledge? Imagine, as an illustration, trying to explain the plot of Hamlet to a six-year-old. I've done it, so I can tell you from experience that it involves simplifications, omissions, and recasting with words and ideas that they can understand. In no way does this change Hamlet itself, or assure that they can't read it when they get older. One shouldn't be constrained to simplifications meant for a child. I'm no theologian, but isn't God meant to be a good and loving teacher? I can't imagine even a bad teacher who would expect a high school student to operate on elementary-school knowledge. Let's say that in fifth grade you learn that the types of matter are solid, liquid, and gas. Then in ninth grade, they tell you that there's also plasma, which isn't exactly any of these. Do you refuse to acknowledge the existence of plasma because you weren't told about it when you were ten? Would a good teacher, counselor, or parent suggest that you do so?

Theology isn't easy, but dogma is. That's the point of dogma. I grew up with a consistent sort of background radiation of science knowledge, so I don't think that being generally informed about science is so tough, but I daresay it's a lot harder to read and think than it is to not read and think. So science is harder than dogma, and maybe it's very tempting to believe you can go the easy way and live out of a single book that you probably haven't even read all the way through, secure in the knowledge that there's nothing to know besides what's already written down. But the way I see it, if you believe in God, then insistently clinging to what he told humanity when we were young and stupid is ungrateful. It underestimates God and shows a lack of respect for his creation. It implies, contrary to what that very same Bible says, that he put us here to learn nothing and to grow not at all. It actively rejects what he's been telling us as we've grown, in favor of what he said when we were young. It won't do its homework; it wants bedtime stories.

I know several good Christians, by which I mean that they're good people and also that they try to actually follow Christ's tenets of love and tolerance. (This is in contrast to the most vocal and hateful Christians that we all have to deal with.) I know good Muslims too, and good Jews, and good pagans -- all of these religions boil down to "don't be a jerk," after all. I know lots of good atheists, since we have to be decent because we think decency is the way to go, rather than because we were told to or because we fear punishment. (I know atheists who don't believe in decency too, of course.) And I have no problems with the religious beliefs of my religious friends. At the most extreme, we find our differences interesting but pity each other secretly; more often, we agree on most things, including the fact that my lack of faith in no way impinges on their faith or vice versa. In fact, most often, I don't even know my friends' religious commitments. I mention this by way of pedigree: I want to establish that I have never told anyone to change their beliefs, or mocked them for their faith. I mock people, but I mock them for their actions -- particularly when they claim religion as an excuse for acting in a way their God, as originally described, would never approve of. Obviously, telling Bobby Henderson that you hope he dies is one of those ways. I believe that rejecting science is one, too.

All of it


We sell this shirt in the NAP bookstore, where I am working for half of today (making three times what I used to make for working in a bookstore, so I can't really complain). The bookstore manager told me that people ask what it is all the time, so I wrote it down and brought it home to Dan, who confirmed that it was F=ma written in the most obscure way possible. (The marketing people didn't seem to get why that was funny... but then, that's what they need me for.) A guy came in today and was delighted that I could tell him what it was and could recognize some of the symbols, but he too wasn't sure exactly what formulation of F=ma he was looking at (he said the acceleration of the Earth was in there somewhere).

Eventually, since this is the National Academies, a prominent physicist will undoubtedly come in and recognize it at a glance. Meanwhile, though, Dan explained volume integrals and R-double-dot, but we're otherwise stumped. Can anyone help unpack the equation?