Brief Notes on Bad Physics

BPSDBThings I’ve encountered in my travels or been told about but don’t have time to discuss in detail:

Well-known pseudoscientist Myron Evans is trying to start a university to promote his particular brand of highly gussied-up crank physics. According to the Welsh news, Evans plans to kick off “Myron Evans University” (not unduly troubled by modesty, is he?). Reporter Martin Shipton gives a standard he-said, she-said summary:

He claims to have formulated a “unified field theory” which will revolutionise modern physics, and while he has the strong support of some academics, the theory has been dismissed by others.

Oh, those vicious academics, always eager to knock a man’s leek about his pate on St. Davy’s Day. Incidentally, the sugar daddy for this bit of self-aggrandizement is Francesco Fucilla, supposedly a “generous oil multi-millionaire” who saw Evans’s “work” on the Internet; as far as I can tell, Fucilla is actually a moderately prosperous, semi-retired engineer who doesn’t have nearly the financial capital to start a university. He’s credited as chief geophysicist at the Palm Harbor, Florida “Institute of Basic Research” — which the article erroneously locates in California — and which was founded by “I can burn water for fuel and I hate relativity” crank Ruggero Santilli.

The more you delve into serious crankery, the more weirdness you find; I’ll probably be returning to this subject soon.

Next up:

Feeling thirsty for quantum woo? Do your genetics feel unhighlighted? Are your cells vibrating at the wrong frequencies of consciousness? Then you might be interested in the Human Design System:

Strategy according to type, and inner authority for decision making are the primary tools offered by the Human Design System. According to proponents of Human Design, when someone experiments with their strategy and authority, it transforms their life, one decision at a time. Through each decision they can begin to discover their uniqueness, and they find the correct alignment of their own particular trajectory. In addition, by experimenting with strategy and trying out decision making with the individual’s inner authority, each person comes to their own conclusion about the validity of the information from their own experience.

At a practical level, Human Design offers a new process of decision making. It is not a new mental strategy or type-casting philosophy. It is about transferring the decision making from the mind to the inner authority of the body. Every cell in the body has it’s own intelligence, it’s own memory capacity, and according to Human Design, it’s own frequency of consciousness. This bio-intelligence, the consciousness of the form itself becomes the source of the inner authority for decision making.

This might be the first bit of woo I’ve seen which invokes magnetic monopoles:
Continue reading Brief Notes on Bad Physics

OK, The Power of Science Blog!

The infamous evilutionary superscientist P-Zed has been interviewed by a Korean newspaper in connection with a plagiarism incident which P-Zed’s legion of readers helped expose. The story in The Hankyoreh has not yet been published in an English version, but the Korean copy is available online.

A reader translates the headline as, “A plagiarism case spotted within 8 hrs since publishing: the Strength of Science Blogs.” (It actually took only a little over four hours for the first plagiarized passage to be detected; PZ Myers’s blog post appeared at 10:08 AM, and Ian York found the first of many stolen passages at 2:17 PM, ScienceBlogs time.) Google translates that headline as

After eight hours’ thesis plagiarism ‘OK, the power of science blog!

Machine translation, where would we be without you?



Waves of pain ratcheting up through the fading numbness of ebbing anaesthesia, pain strong enough to trigger my synaesthetic response, becoming a camera flare of magnesium light radiating out of my jawbone. Suddenly, it occurs to me that the odd array of mechanical noises I’d heard emanating from inside my mouth whilst I reclined in the endodontist’s chair really did denote the removal of matter from my head.

But, one filled prescription later. . . Mmmm, delicious hydrocodone.

While I indulge in painkillers and a modest dinner of very soft foods, here are links to some interesting things happening in my local cluster of Network nodes:

First, Brian Switek is growing old! Everyone should congratulate him on making it this far, and warn him that he’d better retain his youthful enthusiasm.

Russell Blackford has a couple thought-provoking posts, the first on transhumanism and atheism, and the second on Francisco Ayala’s book Darwin’s Gift to Science and Religion (2007), an entry in the Templeton genre which Blackford has reviewed for Cosmos magazine. Meanwhile, Ben Allen reports about computer science ideas spreading into other areas of science, such as an interesting result on the computational difficulty of finding equilibrium points in exchange markets.

Next stop on this random walk: both Abbie Smith (1, 2) and TR Gregory have weighed in on some recent remarks by microbiologist Carl Woese, who seems to have looked at the poor state of high-school biology education and given up hope that evolution could ever be taught at the high-school level. I can only guess at the frustration which could drive a man to the philosophy that the cure for bad education is no education; in the end, I agree with Prof. Gregory:
Continue reading Happenings

PHP Puzzlement

Did the meaning of the character sequence \f in PHP change overnight? I just had a bizarre error in my LaTeX rendering plugin, which I ended up fixing by adding a whole bunch of extra backslashes. LaTeXrender works by generating a LaTeX document from a formula in a webpage and then passing that document through the LaTeX interpreter, converting the output into an image which is placed in the webpage. This means that the peculiarities of LaTeX and of PHP must both be respected, and because both languages use the backslash character for special purposes, extra backslashes appear when those purposes collide.

For example, \n in PHP (and in C) stands for a newline character (yes, we are still slave to the teletype). So, if you want your PHP program to output a character string containing the LaTeX command \newline, you have to write \\newline. The first backslash “escapes” the second.

Suddenly, LaTeXrender started spewing out garbage: big blocks of image with bits of LaTeX commands inside, wrapped around a formula in the middle. Something must have started going wrong with the text being passed to LaTeX. How did I, the seasoned LaTeX guru and MIT graduate, solve this conundrum?

I threw backslashes at the problem until it went away.

No, seriously: all LaTeX commands starting with \f, like \formulabox or whatever, needed an extra backslash. I changed every instance of \f in the PHP source code to \\f, and now the plugin works again. Why this is necessary today but wasn’t necessary yesterday. . . I leave that as an exercise for the interested reader.

This is why I don’t have a nice post about the Dirac Equation for you today.

Physics versus Fear

In the Channel 4 programme Breaking the Science Barrier (1996), Richard Dawkins faces down a pendulum:

This is a classic example of a “put your money (or nose) where your mouth is” physics demonstration. It also appears in Carl Sagan’s novel Contact (1985), for example, and Feynman did it during the freshman physics lectures he gave at Caltech.

Later in the same show, Dawkins interviews Douglas Adams, and gives a few comparisons to help understand the depths of evolutionary time:
Continue reading Physics versus Fear

Construction of the “I”

I was feeling rather glum yesterday afternoon, but then I had a lemon square, fresh and warm from the oven, and life was much better. In addition, I feel oddly cheered that other random people on the Internet also found this video frightening when they were small children:

In fact, hey, I’ve got one of those in my ceiling right now. . . I’m not sure I’m going to be able to sleep at night.

And with John Armstrong deconstructing xkcd, I’m tempted to flex my own Critical Theory organs and dissertate on how Sesame Street‘s “I Beam” segment indicates the construction of personal identity is a violent process.

Bloggers of the 1930s

I wonder if it’s true that you can only be a starry-eyed youngster once. I discovered the science fiction of Isaac Asimov when I was a ninth-grader, so far out of the social whirl that I didn’t even expect I was missing anything. I had my books and my BASIC compiler, and a few friends who shared my tastes in both, so what need had I for cheap beer? I collected the whole “Greater Foundation” series, from the Robot stories to the last Foundation book; Robots and Empire (1985) was the hardest to get, only turning up in my relatives’ used-book store in Seldovia, Alaska. Looking back through them in more recent years, big chunks don’t hold up that well, but I find myself inclined to view even the clunky and dated parts of, say, Pebble in the Sky (1950) with favor. Is it just sentiment at work? Do we each get a quota of one author we read through rose-tinted spectacles, just because they were the first we discovered?

When I try to put sentiment aside, I find that some stories still work, chief among them The Caves of Steel (1954). Still, if I want a book to read for “comfort food,” or to give myself an emotional pick-me-up and reinvigoration, I’m more likely to turn to Asimov’s non-fiction, from which there is plenty to choose. (I’d actually discovered the nonfiction first, several years before beginning my love affair with the Robot stories. For years, the only Asimov fiction I knew was the English-language screenplay of Gandahar (1988).) Among his best nonfiction is, funnily enough, his autobiography, of which there is also no shortage, as it comes in two strictly chronological volumes carrying his story through the 1970s, followed by a memoir published after his death and a book of his letters published after that.

All this is added value to make the passage I’m quoting today somewhat more admissible under “Fair Use” law. One of the fascinating things about Asimov’s autobiography is that it begins with his family history in Czarist Russia, on the borders of Belarus, then follows his nuclear family through Ellis Island into slum living in Brooklyn, then public school during the Depression, on through World War II. . . right the way to Watergate and, in the third volume, to glasnost and the TRS-80. One human life can cover a great deal of territory. Then come the odd moments of synchrony, when a bit of 1930s New York springs out at you and gains a strange relevance. To that end, here is In Memory Yet Green (1979), p. 209, describing the background to the Greater New York Science Fiction Club’s splitting into the Queens Science Fiction Club and the Futurian Science Literary Society, all the way back in 1938:
Continue reading Bloggers of the 1930s

Hiaasen on Florida Education

Listen up, Alabama, because you’re next:

Over the years the Legislature has worked tirelessly to keep our kids academically stuck in the mid-1950s. This has been achieved by overcrowding their classrooms, underpaying their teachers and letting their school buildings fall apart.

Florida’s plucky refusal to embrace 21st century education is one reason that prestigious tech industries have avoided the state, allowing so many of our high-school graduates (and those who come close) to launch prosperous careers in the fast-food, bartending and service sectors of the economy.

By accepting evolution as a proven science, our top educators would be sending a loud message to the rest of the nation: Stop making fun of us.

Is that what we really want?

Come to think of it, I wonder how much money the Alabama State Board of Edumacation spent — in time, labor and materials — putting those “don’t you worry your purty li’l head” stickers in all our biology textbooks. It might have been a substantial amount of cash, but it probably wouldn’t have been enough to pay somebody other than the basketball coach to teach our biology class.

A Bill Hicks Interlude

Mister DNA worries that he has lost a couple million brain cells after watching a video clip of horrid and ignorant “Christian comedy,” so I figured that in the interests of science, we should see if a little Bill Hicks can promote neurogenesis. Sit back in your fMRI machine, wire up your cortical electrodes and enjoy. Yes, the language is roughly as coarse as what you’d hear in any middle-school cafeteria on an average day.

The joke about Jackie Onassis and the sniper-rifle pendant may have to be updated for a younger audience. A variation on the following might work:
Continue reading A Bill Hicks Interlude

Another Math “Joke”

Sum 1 to N writes the following:

A math professor is proving some general theorem, and ends up with a result involving [tex]x[/tex]’s and [tex]y[/tex]’s. One student raises his hand and asks, “Can you show us a special case of that theorem?”. In other words, the student wanted a specific application of the theorem. The professor proceeds to erase the [tex]x[/tex]’s and [tex]y[/tex]’s and replace them with [tex]x_0[/tex]’s and [tex]y_0[/tex]’s. The student replies, “Ah! That makes more sense.”

As it is trivially obvious to the most casual observer, the extension of the theorem to [tex]x_1[/tex] and [tex]y_1[/tex] is left as an exercise to the interested reader.

And it will be on the test.

Science Illiteracy of the Day

BPSDBToday’s installment of “We’re so ignorant about basic science you couldn’t make up the crap we say if you tried” comes from Y-Origins Connection, a magazine which uses “dramatic photos and contemporary graphics” to explain “both sides of the intelligent design debate,” namely the creationist side and the creationists’ view of the scientists’ side. This comes from their website, right up top:

Quantum mechanics has revealed that our material world is based upon an invisible world of subatomic particles that is totally non-material. And over 95% of our universe consists of dark matter and energy that is beyond scientific observation. Also, scientists are openly discussing dimensions beyond ours where walking through walls and teleportation could be realities. The dilemma for materialists is that these areas are beyond the purview of science.

They managed to pack at least one kind of wrong in each sentence. I’m impressed. The overall theme seems to be taking discoveries of science and claiming them to be beyond science. When that well of inspiration runs dry, they take bits of overheard science jargon (hep talk like “extra dimensions” or “quantum teleportation,” let’s say) and throw them together without regard to their meaning. Truly they are strong in the art of nonsense-fu.

Kurzweil’s Predictions for 2009

Apropos an announcement from the AAAS annual meeting, Steve Novella ponders the task of reverse-engineering the human brain. For those of us who share a materialistic view of the brain — i.e., for people who subscribe to actual science instead of woo — this task is likely to seem possible in principle, although daunting in practice. If the mind is the activity of the brain, and a finite number of genes can direct the growth of a brain in a finite amount of time, and the molecules which make up the brain are being exchanged in and out all the time anyway, it’s reasonable to speculate that we’ll be able to mimic the process in another medium. Novella argues that the “software” part of this task will be harder than the “hardware” side:

Sure, we may run into unexpected technological hurdles, but so far we have been able to develop new approaches to computing technology to keep blasting through all hurdles and keep Moore’s Law on track. So while there is always uncertainty in predicting future technology, predicting this level of computer advancement at the least can be considered highly probable.

The software extrapolation I think is more difficult to do, as conceptual hurdles may be more difficult to solve and may stall progress for a undetermined amount of time.

Broadly speaking, I agree. The exact amount of processing power needed to implement the brain in a Linux box is as yet unknown; it depends on things like the complexity of an individual synapse, and how much data is required to represent the state of a neuron. Then, too, for every hardware advance on Moore’s side of the ledger, Gates is there to bloat the software by a corresponding amount, and the applications of computer technology which have most radically affected life in recent years have depended not on raw cycles-per-second, but on networking and mass storage, neither of which necessarily improves at the same rate as processor speed.

Ray Kurzweil may be the most famous evangelist of the view that explosive increases in computer power will give us artificial intelligence on a par with our own in the near future. He has elaborated upon this idea in several books, a couple of which I used to have on my shelf; a commenter at NeuroLogica, Sciolist, still has The Age of Spiritual Machines (1999) close at hand.

Kurzweil claims that man’s merger with machine is inevitable, because the pace of evolution has been increasing exponentially — when we reach the edge of biological evolution, we must transition into artificial substrates so that can continue traveling up that exponential curve into binary godliness. This, he predicts, is inevitable. That’s at least a misreading of the theory of evolution; I’d argue it’s also a bit kooky.

Indeed, Kurzweil’s attempts to anchor his “Law of Accelerating Returns” in geological deep time are singularly silly, to steal PZ Myers’ phrase. They rely upon condensing multiple historical events into single data points to get a pretty curve, and instead of reflecting any deep truth about evolutionary processes, the curve you get reveals a recentist bias — the “proximity of the familiar.”

I recall that bothering me when I read the book, eight or so years ago, but eight years have gone by since then, making my memory only slightly more reliable than that of a HAL 9000 unit being fed a tapeworm. Thus it was with surprise and glee that I read Sciolist’s recounting of the predictions Kurzweil makes for one decade after the book’s publication, 2009:
Continue reading Kurzweil’s Predictions for 2009

A Pseudolinguist Does Pseudobiology

BPSDBM.J. Harper has a book available in your friendly local Barnes and Borders-A-Million, entitled The Secret History of the English Language. The short version of the professional critique of his linguistic claims is that they’re garbage. However, just as garbage attracts flies, so too will one kind of pseudoscience find happy companionship with another. (It occurs to me that I’m being a little unkind to flies with this metaphor.) Take what Harper says about biological evolution, in which he dredges out the old and tiresome canard that evolution is unfalsifiable:

Take the exemplar of all modern academic paradigms, the Theory of Evolution. There’s no question that the theory is valuable in so far as it has led more or less directly to the creation of the modern Life Sciences, but, true or false, the theory no less certainly contains the seeds of its own infinite survival. Having adopted a properly scientific root-and-branch model of speciation in which ex hypothesi all species must be demonstrably linked to other species, it permits the indefinite opening of new categories whenever a species cannot be demonstrably linked to other species. This has the unavoidable corollary that nothing can ever discovered from now until the end of time that can ever call the model into question.

That sound you hear is the figurative ghost of J. B. S. Haldane screaming, “Fossil rabbits in the sodding Precambrian!”

The modern understanding of evolution has multiple components, all of which are supported by countless interlocking lines of evidence. Common descent is one of these components, as is the principle of natural selection. Evidence could force us to revise our understanding of common descent, while leaving natural selection largely untouched. Other lines of evidence could conceivably challenge natural selection and show that it hasn’t operated to a significant extent over the history of life, but that evidence, to put it mildly, hasn’t yet come to light. In short, each component is falsifiable, but Nature has not falsified them.
Continue reading A Pseudolinguist Does Pseudobiology


The Internet is making me feisty and argumentative (exhibit A). In my current mood, I’d be apt to fill this space with spite; fortunately, other people blag so I don’t have to.

First in a random ordering, Ben Allen asks, “How complex is a human?” Entertaining arithmetic ensues in the comments. Next, our friend gg kicks off a series of posts on Einstein’s relativity. Oddly enough, relativity has also showed up in Steven Novella’s latest debunking of Michael Egnor.

Finally, Russell Blackford has saved me the trouble of blagging about an odd story concerning religion and nanotechnology.

I’m currently supposed to be writing two different journal articles at my day job, but I’ll see if I can eke out the time to continue my supersymmetry series. There’s no better way to get myself a little peace and quiet than to post lots of equations!