Christian Terrorists

. . . have MySpace pages.

We’re not going to transcend and walk off into the sunclipse as post-singularity transhumans with crap like this happening:

Falwell’s funeral was yesterday, and apparently there were demonstrations — which seems highly inappropriate to me, no matter which side they were arguing — and a Liberty University student was arrested for bringing homemade bombs to the funeral. Bombs. To a funeral. There’s just something insanely religious about that.

From the aforelinked ABC News story:

The student, 19-year-old Mark D. Uhl of Amissville, Va., reportedly told authorities that he was making the bombs to stop protesters from disrupting the funeral service. The devices were made of a combination of gasoline and detergent, a law enforcement official told ABC News’ Pierre Thomas. They were “slow burn,” according to the official, and would not have been very destructive.

Like all theoretical physicists, I grew up reading the Jolly Roger’s Cookbook and suchlike BBS-era anarchist literature. I think gasoline and detergent makes a Mountain Breeze-scented napalm (why Uhl didn’t go for styrofoam, I’m not sure).

What sort of mindset must you have when bombs are your first course of action?

(Tip o’ the fedora to Russell for the title.)

Dear Michael Shermer: Physics Matters

Dear Gentle Reader: if you have discovered this post by searching for a phrase like “positive thoughts more powerful than negative thoughts,” it is my duty to tell you that no, they aren’t.

I just spotted (via Mind Hacks and my spiffy new RSS reader) Michael Shermer’s article in the June 2007 Scientific American,The (Other) Secret.” While I appreciate anything which applies the cluestick to pseudoscientific bunk, I’m afraid Shermer needs a bit of a refresher course himself. I quote from a little way into the column:

A pantheon of shiny, happy people assures viewers that The Secret is grounded in science: “It has been proven scientifically that a positive thought is hundreds of times more powerful than a negative thought.” No, it hasn’t. “Our physiology creates disease to give us feedback, to let us know we have an imbalanced perspective, and we’re not loving and we’re not grateful.” Those ungrateful cancer patients.

So far, pretty good. We continue:

“You’ve got enough power in your body to illuminate a whole city for nearly a week.” Sure, if you convert your body’s hydrogen into energy through nuclear fission. “Thoughts are sending out that magnetic signal that is drawing the parallel back to you.” But in magnets, opposites attract—positive is attracted to negative.

Aaagh! Double aaagh!
Continue reading Dear Michael Shermer: Physics Matters

Video Physics Resources

I’ve mentioned both of these items before, but I figured I should bring them up explicitly. (A nasty stretch of PHP coding lies in my near future, and the need to procrastinate is becoming almost a physical pain.) First is Caltech’s series The Mechanical Universe (1985), which I first saw on PBS many years ago and is now available online for free. If you want a year’s worth of freshman physics, you can now get it in moving-picture form. Early episodes also cover some necessary math: derivatives, integrals and vectors. The videos require a free login before use.

Second in the video department is Barton Zwiebach’s String Theory for Pedestrians (2007). The content should be comprehensible to advanced undergrads. Summary:

In this 3-lecture series I will discuss the basics of string theory, some physical applications, and the outlook for the future. I will begin with the main concepts of the classical theory and the application to the study of cosmic superstrings. Then I will turn to the quantum theory and discuss applications to the investigation of hadronic spectra and the recently discovered quark-gluon plasma. I will conclude with a sketch of string models of particle physics and showing some avenues that may lead to a complete formulation of string theory.

Unfortunately, the CERN people haven’t yet figured out this neat “embedding video” thing. RealMedia is so, like, 2001 (and sucks besides). I was able to use Real Alternative to play the Zwiebach videos on Windows and MPlayer to watch them on Linux.
Continue reading Video Physics Resources

Blagnet vs. Lit-Crit

The Columbia Journalism Review‘s daily section offers this, ahem, interesting perspective on the difference between blag-writing and book reviewing. It comes from Richard Schickel, who reviews movies for Time and occasionally books for the LA Times.

Let me put this bluntly, in language even a busy blogger can understand: Criticism — and its humble cousin, reviewing — is not a democratic activity. It is, or should be, an elite enterprise, ideally undertaken by individuals who bring something to the party beyond their hasty, instinctive opinions of a book (or any other cultural object). It is work that requires disciplined taste, historical and theoretical knowledge and a fairly deep sense of the author’s (or filmmaker’s or painter’s) entire body of work, among other qualities.

Mm-hmm. Refresh my memory: is this called “begging the question” or “assuming the answer”? Why can’t a middle-aged, pony-tailed white male sitting in his boxer shorts and writing for free have the same historical knowledge as a middle-aged, tweed-jacketed professor of TwenCen Literature? The expertise of the latter comes from reading books — primary, secondary and n-ary sources — and discussing with other people both more and less knowledgeable than he. What in blazes requires this to happen within the Sacred Halls of Academia and nowhere else? (One fun thing about the Wobosphere is that academic politics is turned inside-out, and the spats which once occurred in slow motion across books and journals can now happen in real time for all to see.)

Quality is a multi-dimensional thing, and all types of writing are distributed widely along these many axes. There are good books with bad parts, bad books with interesting pages, dumb books by smart people — and the same holds true for blogs and pages within Wikipedia. Live with it. (Another fun thing about the Wobosphere is that examples of all these genera can be found and compared.)

I swear. Some people make a hat of ivy and wear it like a crown of thorns.

If Schickel were a weaver of theological arguments rather than a book critic, he’d be offering us a Courtier’s Reply.

Polchinski on Smolin on Polchinski on Smolin

Over at Cosmic Variance, Sean Carroll has just posted a guest essay by Joe Polchinski replying to Lee Smolin’s response to Polchinski’s review of Smolin’s book. I managed to snag the first comment spot; I predict that Peter Woit will show up within ten. With any luck, the ensuing comments will contain much good talk about physics, though the signal-to-noise ratio is a perennial problem. (Even Sean admits that he doesn’t read every comment.)

I would like to skim past several details of the physics and pull out for special consideration a passage of Polchinski’s which concerns, ironically, what happens when you think in text instead of physics:

This process of translation of an idea from words to calculation will be familiar to any theoretical physicist. It is often the hardest part of a problem, and the point where the greatest creativity enters. Many word-ideas die quickly at this point, or are transmuted or sharpened. Had you applied it to your word-ideas, you would probably have quickly recognized their falsehood. Further, over-reliance on the imprecise language of words is surely correlated with the tendency to confuse scientific arguments with sociological ones.

Polchinski is speaking about the standards one must maintain while doing science, but similar concerns apply to the process of explaining science. Of course, the latter process is one ingredient in the former, but we often think of “popularizing” (or vulgarisation if we want to be Gallic) as a distinct enterprise from communicating with fellow researchers and educating the next round of students. John Armstrong’s recent post on this topic addresses the same question from the opposite direction: according to Polchinski, going from words to equations is the hard part of getting work done, while Armstrong points out that when “vulgarizing” the science, that’s the very step we omit!

Armstrong amplified his point in the comments here at Sunclipse:

Roger Penrose noted specifically in his introduction to The Road To Reality that modern physics is no longer accessible to anyone — specialists included — except through the mathematics. We understand quantum field theory as well as we do because we understand the mathematics. To avoid the mathematics in its entirely [sic] cuts the legs out from under any popularization of physics, and risks becoming The Tao of Physics or The Dancing Wu Li Masters.

Continue reading Polchinski on Smolin on Polchinski on Smolin

Sunday Inspirational Anecdote

Monado just linked to my post on science-themed lolcats, so I popped over there and checked out the recent posts, among which I found a wonderful little story about a five-year-old who saved her mother’s life. It comes from “Firegirl,” an emergency medical technician, and is reprinted at Science Notes with her permission.

A 5-year old little girl called 911 to come help her mother. When we got on scene, firefighers were already there and the little girl came bouncing out to greet us with a cheery, “HI! My mommy fell down in the kitchen!” She didn’t seem concerned, really, which is a nice change from the kids who cry and worry. In fact, she turned out to be incredibly helpful, beyond the initial 911 call. She lead my partner and I into the kitchen where “Mommy” had apparently been fixing a pizza for her children (the girl and her six year old brother) when she collapsed. Mom was breathing fine but she kept lapsing in and out of consciousness and couldn’t really give us much information on what was going on.

I was pulling on a pair of gloves and the little girl said, “My mommy has some of those! See!” and pointed to a box of non-latex gloves sitting on a sideboard. Good thing she pointed those out! We all pulled off our latex gloves and replaced them with the ones on the sideboard. (We left her a fresh box out of our ambo as well.) When the girl asked why we did that I explained that we needed to wear “Mommy’s special gloves” because our gloves could make her sick. She nodded and said, “’cause she’s ‘lergic, right?” I was impressed and said yes, that was why. […]

Read the rest (tabbed browsing is your friend!).

I could draw a whole bunch of obvious morals about the importance of factual knowledge, the value of an informed citizenry, the incredible ability of children to learn and so forth, but I think the story speaks pretty well for itself.

The Unapologetic Mathematician on Popularization

John Armstrong has a short and sweet post on popularizing mathematics and physics which is worth reading in its entirety. I don’t want to quote the whole thing, so just go read it.

Incidentally, he says he was inspired to write the post by the movie Mindwalk (1990). I had only ever heard of this flick because they’d stuck a preview for it on the Brief History of Time video I rented sometime in the late nineties. I then managed to forget about it until a few weeks ago, when I was poking through Wikipedia for articles containing pseudoscience. Somehow, in the tangled thicket of pages growing like weeds upon quantum mysticism and Choprawoo, I found Mindwalk. “Aha! I remember seeing a preview for that movie.”

Tancredo Endorses Antiscience

Joel Achenbach writes in yesterday’s WaPo magazine about “retail politics” and the presidential campaign which is happening in the wrong year. Towards the end, he describes what happened when he tagged along with Tom Tancredo:

One day in Keene, N.H., I tagged along with Tom Tancredo as he went from table to table in Lindy’s Diner. Tancredo is a Colorado Republican with a hard line on immigration. He said he needed to raise $1 million in the first three months of the year. Wasn’t sure he could do it. Hardly anyone knows who he is.

“Hi, I’m Tom Tancredo,” he would say at each table. Most people had no idea who he was, and he seemed a bit reluctant to utter the obvious phrase, “and I’m running for president.”

A woman asked Tancredo, “What do you think of autism in this country?” She has a 4-year-old with autism. Tancredo said, “I think much of it is due to the number of shots we give to kids . . .” They talked about mercury in vaccines’ preservatives. She was impressed by Tancredo — but she’s a Democrat. Retail has its limitations.

Left and right united against medicine! Why, Tancredo could have Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. as his running mate. Denial of fact should not be the basis for politics, people.
Continue reading Tancredo Endorses Antiscience

Dobson on Foreign Policy

Via the Richard Dawkins forums comes James Dobson’s take on Middle Eastern affairs. Dobson is interviewing known eschatological loonball Joel C. Rosenberg and promoting Rosenberg’s new book. Here’s Rosenberg:

We can’t say for sure that this is a prophetic event, but as followers of Jesus Christ, our command is to “be strong and courageous.” That’s what God said to Joshua four times in the first chapter of Joshua. We who have the Holy Spirit in us should not cower in the face of this, because the Muslims are lost, and because they are lost they are being driven I believe by THE ENEMY in a way that will confront us but we know that Jesus Christ is powerful and we know he is moving in the Middle East. I think what is most exciting in the Middle East is a story the media is missing: that in the last 30 years in Iran, there are now more than one million Muslims who have converted to faith in Christianity in Iran. If that’s not evidence that we are living in the last days, I don’t know what is.

Yes, it’s the end of the world as we know it. . . again! And here’s Dobson’s reply:

We know the Lord is in control. We know that he has never lost a battle. And we know he loves us, and he loves the nation of Israel and has made that clear for thousands of years. So what should we do?

There’s just one little factor which Dobson has left out of his careful foreign-policy calculations. I admit that only an expert in the field would be aware of this, but a man as influential as Dobson has no excuse for ignorance.
Continue reading Dobson on Foreign Policy

Categorical Indecency and Wild OATs

As part of a mysterious web-development project about which I am Not At Liberty To Speak, I have an RSS feed of news stories running through some filtering algorithms and dumping onto a local intranet page. That’s how I noticed this story on WikiNews.

The Hong Kong Television and Entertainment Licensing Authority (TELA) has received more than 1,700 complaints calling for the Bible to be reclassified as “indecent”, following a heated controversy sparked by the sex column of an university student magazine, which was classified by the government classification tribunal as “indecent”.

Apparently, the Obscene Articles Tribunal (OAT) slapped a “Category II: Indecent” rating upon a student newspaper for publishing an article which asked readers if they ever fantasized about incest and/or bestiality. This means that the students publishing the newspaper will have a criminal record. Enough people got irritated by this that somebody started www.truthbible.net, whose legal disclaimer reads as follows:
Continue reading Categorical Indecency and Wild OATs

Carnivalia

The third Carnival of Space is up at Universe Today. This is a new carnival, and it looks like it might be a weekly affair.

The deadline for the eighth Carnival of Mathematics is also fast approaching. And let’s not forget the 61st Skeptic’s Circle, targeted for 24 May and hosted by the inimitable Skepchicks. In a stunning display of synchronicity, the physical-science carnival Philosophia Naturalis #10 will appear on the same day!

Dark Energy Weirdness

OK, has anybody here heard of Tori Amos? She’s apparently a friend of Neil Gaiman, which is cool, but her Wikipedia article doesn’t cite enough sources for me to figure out what she’s about. Apparently, she’s releasing a music album entitled American Doll Posse; I’d tell you more, but her website requires “the latest flash player.” I did manage to find out that for this album, Amos created five alter egos, four of which are based on Greek goddesses with the fifth being Amos herself. (For the record, the goddesses are Artemis, Persephone, Athena and Aphrodite.) Eris, the patron goddess of the Internet, inspired somebody to write the following on Wikipedia:

On March 23, 2007, toriamos.com released an audio clip from Amos, stating that each of the characters from American Doll Posse has her own online blog. She urged fans to find them, saying “Happy hunting.”

Well, I know where at least one of them is. Pip (Athena) maintains a LiveJournal, on which she writes (this being the point of my odd little story),
Continue reading Dark Energy Weirdness

Enhanced Circumlocution Techniques

Lately, there’s been a bit of a dust-up over at the ScienceBlogs schizophrenic hive mind over some statements by Mitt Romney. During the course of the kerfluffle, I started thinking about the slippery way words work, and how oddities in our relationships to words affect the way we interpret them. As the fracas was dying down, a related post zinged my way from a different quarter which motivated me to ramble about the whole affair.

It began with Michael Luo writing the following at the New York Times political blog “caucus.”

“I believe that God designed the universe and created the universe,” Mr. Romney said in an interview this week. “And I believe evolution is most likely the process he used to create the human body.”

He was asked: Is that intelligent design?

“I’m not exactly sure what is meant by intelligent design,” he said. “But I believe God is intelligent and I believe he designed the creation. And I believe he used the process of evolution to create the human body.”

Is this a good sign or a bad one? More exactly, does it signify a move from very bad to less so? Well, tough to say — I don’t think “close reading” is a very useful tool to apply to politicians’ statements. (If this were a letter from Thomas Pynchon, then yes, we should scrutinize it for every nuance of meaning, yet Romney is not a future Nobelist but rather an embryonic Nixon.) Whether a man can be an ally in the struggle for reason and critical thought depends not only upon his ideas, but upon the man himself.

As a person who is moderately informed about biology, I grow nervous when I hear people single out “the human body” for preferential treatment as the desired end product of the evolutionary process. Remember in Calvin and Hobbes when Calvin described the prehistory of Earth from 4.5 billion years ago until today and then announced, “Now, in 1988, there’s me. The acme of evolution!” Satire, almost twenty years ahead of its target. Remember Prometheus, sculpting humans out of clay and stealing fire because all the good tricks had been given to the other animals? The only noteworthy difference between the Greek story and the modern myth is that like Bill Watterson, the Greeks recognized how feeble our bodies are without feral claws and feline night-vision.
Continue reading Enhanced Circumlocution Techniques