I don’t know how often most of you notice the occasional noises of Flat-Earthers online, and particularly on social media, but I notice. Encountering such absurdities can at times lead a reasonably educated person to feel that the world is going mad, that society is collapsing, and that—despite the cornucopia of information available to us—humans are breathtakingly stupid.
However, I’ve recently been reading John Stuart Mill’s “On Liberty,” and it gave me a new insight: The fact the we encounter such vociferous and seemingly ridiculous expressions of contra-factual ideas is a sign of the health and strength of our discourse, rather than its deterioration. Continue reading “Flat-Earthers and “hate speech” are good for us”
Some years ago, when I first read Carl Sagans’s The Demon-Haunted World, I encountered a notion that stuck in my mind and has grown more prominent as the years have passed. This is the idea that laws, as made in a democracy, are a form of experiment, but that they are carried out without any of the sensible objective measures and controls that make scientific experiments so useful. I think this is clearly true, and I think we should all try to petition our legislators to approach laws in this scientific fashion.
Many—perhaps most—new laws are proposed to prevent, or correct, or create some specific situation…presumably altering something that isn’t quite the way we want it to be. Unfortunately, the way laws are proposed and assessed is through public debate—at best. As civil and criminal courtrooms demonstrate, when an important matter is addressed mainly through debate, the outcome isn’t necessarily that the best or truest idea is chosen, but that those who are most skilled at rhetoric and manipulation rule the day. This is not a much more reliable way to make good decisions than by holding a jousting match. It’s not good in court, and it’s worse in the halls of legislature, where the quality of discourse is often even lower than one often finds among courtroom lawyers (“If the glove does not fit, you must acquit,” is at least mildly clever, as opposed to the appalling spectacle of an elected legislator in the Federal Government bringing a snowball into the Capitol Building as evidence against climate change).
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if, with every proposed new bill, the proposer had to articulate what problem was to be addressed by the legislation, and what result was being sought. Then, in the subsequent discussions, legislators could better focus their inquiries, bringing existing information to bear, including the outcomes of prior, similar legislation. Also—and here is a key point—each bill could contain specific language detailing by what means its relative success of failure would be measured, how that data would be collected, at what frequency it would be evaluated, and at what point—if ever—the measure would have been found to fail. We know that most measures, if measured, would fail, based on the experience of science, in which the vast majority hypotheses end up disproven, even when proposed by the best and brightest minds in the world. How much more likely is it that ideas proposed by the likes of our legislators are going to be shown to be ineffective?
Of course, the real world—the laboratory where each new law would be tested—is a messy place, with innumerable confounding variables, correlations which have nothing to do with causation, unreliable data, and so on. So, we wouldn’t necessarily want to hold legislative outcome checks to quite the same standards of rigor as those to which we hold particle physics. But simply requiring each new bill to contain a statement of hoped-for outcomes, of measures by which it would be considered to have succeeded or failed, and a required time of review, could produce better laws, influenced from the beginning by more information and logic than rhetoric. Even if no definitive answer was available at the time of a planned review, that review might still inspire new ideas about how better to measure outcomes, and perhaps even ways to tweak a law to make its outcome more clearly beneficial. Most importantly, it would be much easier to recognize and discard the failures.
Of course, to initiate such a policy of lawmaking would require something even more sweeping than a Constitutional amendment. It would require that we elect representatives capable of bringing a scientific mindset to matters of fact. This, in turn, would require a voting population with the ability to judge among and select such individuals, rather than the charlatans and hucksters they tend to elect. This in turn would require both a change in the educational style of the country and a cultural shift in which we give greater precedence to logic and reason, rather than our usual approaches to life, which are only more sophisticated than those of chimpanzees in that they are more complicated, but which are not necessarily any more rational.*
It’s a tall order, I know. But the possible improvements in our laws, in the way public policy is carried out, and in the general health and well-being of the nation would be potentially vast.
Among the many educational reforms that I think we ought to enact in the United States, and probably throughout the world, one of the most useful would be to begin teaching all students about probability and statistics. These should be taught at a far younger age than that at which most people begin to learn them—those that ever do. Most of us don’t get any exposure to the concepts until we go to university, if we do even there. My own first real, deep exposure to probability and statistics took place when I was in medical school…and I had a significant scientific background even before then.
Why should we encourage young people to learn about such seemingly esoteric matters? Precisely because they seem so esoteric to us. Statistics are quoted with tremendous frequency in the popular press, in advertising, and in social media of all sorts, but the general public’s understanding of them is poor. This appears to be an innate human weakness, not merely a failure of education. We learn basic arithmetic with relative ease, and even the fundamentals of Newtonian physics don’t seem too unnatural when compared with most people’s intuitions about the matter. Yet in the events of everyday life, statistics predominate. Even so seemingly straightforward a relation as the ideal gas law (PV=nRT, relating the volume, temperature, and pressure of a gas) is the product of the statistical effects of innumerable molecules interacting with each other. In this case, the shorthand works well enough, because the numbers involved are so vast, but in more ordinary interactions of humans with each other and with the world, we do not have numbers large enough to produce reliable, simplified formulae. We must deal with statistics and probability. If we do not, then we will fail to deal with reality as accurately as we could, which cannot fail to have consequences, usually bad ones. As I often say (paraphrasing John Mellencamp) “When you fight reality, reality always wins.” Continue reading “Odds are we should teach probability and statistics”
I occasionally wonder about what physicist really think regarding the hypothetical particles, gravitons, those carriers of the gravitational force mandated by the need* to quantize all the forces of nature. Specifically, I wonder how they behave in and around black holes.
I know, from my understanding of General Relativity, that the influence of gravity travels at the speed of light, and the recent LIGO results, and all other experimental results of which I’ve heard, are consistent with that. This must surely mean that the proposed gravitons travel at the speed of light, and are thus mass-less particles. And if they are carrying a force, they must have some form of inherent energy, which means that, according to Einstein at least, their path would be affected by gravity. This seems contradictory in some ways, but it’s my understanding that the electrical force produced by a moving electron also acts backward on itself, so I guess that’s not completely unreasonable…though here I’m veering further away from any deep knowledge, much to my sorrow.
My real question applies to the surface of an event horizon, that boundary in space-time within which all things are separated from the outside by the strength of the gravitational force – more particularly, according to Einstein, by the degree of curvature of space-time. If gravitons are particles, carrying the gravitational force, are they constrained by the effects of the event horizon, or – presumably because they wouldn’t be self-interacting – do they simply pass through it, it being irrelevant to their motion, unlike all other things with finite speeds…which means everything. That sometimes seems contradictory to me, though by no means am I certain that I’m thinking correctly about this. Could it be that the gravitons within and outside of an event horizon are two separate populations of gravitons, with the external ones somehow being generated at the horizon? If not, then how can a particle ignore the degree of gravity, unless, of course, as a mentioned above, they are not self-interacting – which wouldn’t be unusual, since, if I understand correctly, photons also don’t interact with other photons. But photons would, obviously, interact with gravitons, of course, otherwise they wouldn’t be effected by gravity, as we know they are…the most extreme example of this being at a black hole.
I know that a possible explanation for this might be found in M theory, in which we exist in a 3-brane that floats in a larger, higher-dimensional “bulk,” and that gravitons, unlike all the more “ordinary” particles are not constrained to remain within that brane, but can go above and below it, so to speak, thus bypassing any barrier that is exclusive to the brane. But I don’t know if this really deals with the issue.
And, of course, how can the idea of gravity as a force, mediated by a quantum particle, be reconciled with the convincing and highly fruitful model of gravity as the consequence of the curvature of space-time? Obviously, I don’t expect anyone to know the deep answer to this question, since it’s the biggest, most fundamental problem in modern physics: our two best, most powerful theories of the world don’t work when brought together. But if anyone out there has any idea of at least the form of such a possible reconciliation – i.e. do proponents of quantum gravity think that it will eliminate the notion of curved space-time, or do they think, somehow, that it will be an expression thereof – I would be delighted to hear from you. My best reading to date on things like string theory hasn’t given me any real insight into the possible shape of such a unification.
Anyway, these are some of the thoughts that are troubling me this Monday morning. I’d love to know any of your thoughts in response, or if you have any recommendations on further study materials, I would welcome those as well.
* due to the Uncertainty Principle, among other things.
On this 48th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, I want to talk a little bit about science, and how it, in principle, can apply to nearly every subject in life.
The word science is derived from Latin scientia, and earlier scire, which means “to know.” I am, as you might have guessed, a huge fan of science, and have in the past even been a practitioner of it. But science is not just a collection of facts, as many have said before me. Science is an approach to information, and more generally to reality itself, a blend of rationalism and empiricism that calls on us to apply reason to the phenomena which we find in our world and to understand, with increasing completeness, the rules by which our world operates. Personally, I think there are few—and possibly no—areas into which the scientific method cannot be applied to give us a greater understanding of, insight into, and control of, our world and our experience. Continue reading “In defense of scientism”
I just wanted to write a brief posting about how delighted I was to learn that Kip Thorne was one of the scientists who shared the Nobel Prize for physics this year, for his part in the long-awaited confirmation of the existence of gravitational waves.
I’ve been a fan of Professor Thorne’s for more than two decades now (roughly), and have long regretted that he wasn’t more of a public figure, though that’s probably by his own choice. I first heard of him in the post-script to one of the episodes of the original “Cosmos,” (added when the series was re-shown on TBS). In that post-script, Carl Sagan mentioned that when he was writing his novel “Contact,” he wanted to ascertain if there was a legitimate, scientifically valid way for a sufficiently advanced race to travel great distances through space in reasonable lengths of time. The person he asked, he said, was Kip Thorne, and it was Kip Thorne who gave him the information he used to create his worm-hole-using alien race in the book.*
If memory serves, Carl Sagan also mentioned that Kip Thorne had written a science book for popular consumption, called “Black Holes and Time Warps.” (You can find it here on Amazon.) The next time I was at a book store—probably Borders, my favorite book store, the loss of which has been a source of bitter heartache to me—I found a copy and bought it.
I have rarely been so pleased with a science book. If you’re interested in a wonderful, thorough, but well-explained treatment of some of the more extreme aspects of General Relativity, I can’t recommend anything more highly. Even Stephen Hawking and Brian Greene have not produced anything better (that I have read) on this subject, and if you know me, you know that’s high praise indeed. This is one of those books that, when you read it, makes you feel brilliant. This is because the author understands his subject so well that he can convey it in absolutely clear terms, illustrating it literally and figuratively so that these mind-warping (and space-warping) concepts make perfect sense.
Congratulations to Professor Thorne, and to his co-recipients for the recognition of their work on gravitational waves. I remember that, when I first heard about the LIGO observatory, some years ago, and how it worked, I thought, “But wait, won’t the lasers and the space they pass through be compressed and stretched by gravitational waves exactly the same amount? Won’t that negate the measurable effects of the waves and make the laser interferometry wash out?” Obviously, this was not a question that wouldn’t have occurred to the people creating the observatory, and they knew why it wouldn’t be a problem, or at least not an insurmountable one. I wish I’d thought to ask someone in the know when the question occurred to me. I wish I’d known whom to ask (certainly at that time I could not have asked Professor Thorne himself, though nowadays he could probably be reached through Facebook or Twitter).
Anyway, I was more than happy to have my own dubiety (is that a real word?) smashed when the announcement was made that the waves had been detected, and then again, and now again, only within the past few months. It’s not astonishing quite in the same way as when I first heard of the discovery that the expansion of the universe was accelerating (Wow, what an excellent, world-changing surprise that was!), but in other ways it’s just as awe-inspiring. We (the human race) are on the leading edge of a whole new era of astronomy, one that could someday let us peer back past the last scattering surface that produced the CMB and catch glimpses of a time ever closer to the Big Bang.
I get chills. Seriously.
So, despite all the other, horrible news, of disasters both natural and man-made, that we’ve all had to endure over recent days and weeks, we should take heart in the knowledge that knowledge is possible, and that, however easy it is to destroy things, the power to learn, the power to create knowledge, and thence to create new prosperity, is clearly much stronger. If it were not, civilization would long since have been destroyed.
These are the sorts of thoughts that people like Professor Kip Thorne inspire in me…and I tend to be a gloomy person by nature. Congratulations, Professor Thorne, and congratulations also to Rainer Weiss and Barry Barish, Kip Thorne’s co-recipients. It’s people like you who help keep life worth living for people like me.
*Kip Thorne was also responsible for the bits of the movie “Interstellar” that were actually scientifically accurate, and he certainly cannot be blamed for any departures from legitimate scientific realism one finds therein.