What Can the LHC Tell Us?

What can the LHC tell us, and how long will we have to wait to find out?

Over at Symmetry Breaking, David Harris has a timeline for when the amount of data gathered at the LHC will be large enough to detect particular exciting bits of physics which we expect might be lurking in wait, at high-energy realms we can’t currently reach. (The figures come from Abe Seiden’s presentation at the April 2008 meeting of the American Physical Society.) Assuming the superconducting cables — all 7000 kilometers of them! — get chilled down to their operating temperatures by mid-June and particles start whirling around the ring on schedule after that, then we could hope to spot the Higgs boson as early as 2009.
Continue reading What Can the LHC Tell Us?

Avalos on Biblical Relevance

A few days ago, I was having lunch with a few people from the skeptical and scientific blogging world — Rebecca, Joshua and Jared were there, along with a few others — and I mentioned that I’d twice had nightmares about science blogging. “Bad Astronomy had been taken over by lawyers. There were libel suits everywhere, and all the comment threads were full of trolls. . . . I woke up sweating. . . then I realized what I had been dreaming about and I really panicked.

Normally, when the infighting and the boundless despair about American society which keep cropping up in science blogging start to get to me, I just write something abstrusely technical and take refuge in my own, private ivory tower. However, this week my technical-writing circuits will be occupied by a paper I need to finish for a book of conference proceedings. With all this to contend with, I’ll be taking off for a few days. If I make good progress on other stuff, I should be able to return in time to have an entry in the blogswarm about the Expelled movie.

(My plan, if anybody would like to beat me to the punch, is to summarize what happened to Steve Bitterman, Alex Bolyanatz, Richard Colling, Chris Comer, John Jones, Paul Mirecki, Nancey Murphy, Gwen Pearson and Eric Pianka when they stood for truth against mysticism. All this information is public, but so little of it gets collected and summarized in a convenient place.)

Anyway, it goes against my nature to vanish without leaving some food for thought, so here is a video of Hector Avalos speaking to the Minnesota Atheists last October. The talk, “How Archaeology Killed Biblical History,” summarizes chapter 3 of his recent book, The End of Biblical Studies (2007). I personally found this chapter the toughest material in the book, so an informal exposition which identifies the high points was rather valuable.

Part 2, containing the question-and-answer session, is also available:
Continue reading Avalos on Biblical Relevance

Expelled: Immoral, Incompetent

BPSDBAnd so it came to pass that the creationists, realizing that they would be caught ripping off copyrighted material for their propaganda movie, pushed back the release date and did a quick hack job to cover up the stolen footage. Unfortunately, having no actual knowledge of science — if they did, they wouldn’t be creationists — their replacement was rather lacking in the originality department, and the subterfuge did not last.

Just how derivative was the hack job the propagandists threw together? Well, if XVIVO‘s original “Inner Life of a Cell,” beautiful although somewhat inaccurate, were the riff from “Under Pressure,” then the clip seen in the Expelled movie would play the role of “Ice Ice Baby.” Quidam makes the point more succinctly than I could try:


At once immoral and incompetent: that’s Expelled for you.

The whining and flailing attempts at damage control have already begun, as Tyler dutifully summarizes. I am hardly surprised to note that the refrain “the Darwinists are trying to censor the truth” has already been sounded. Like clockwork, these people are. Here’s a friendly memo: if you stopped doing flagrantly illegal things, it might be more difficult for the mean, nasty evilutionist bogeymen to bring the strong arm of the Man down upon you. Not that we should expect this FYI to sink in, of course — their media message is now “Help, help, we’re being repressed,” when it’s plain to see that the petty authorities who’ve given their bigotries free rein have been creationists lashing out at science. Do the names Steve Bitterman, Alex Bolyanatz, Richard Colling, Chris Comer, Paul Mirecki, Nancey Murphy, Gwen Pearson and Eric Pianka ring any bells? How about the name of Judge John E. Jones III, who became the target of character assassination and even received death threats for the crime of doing his job? I keep waiting for a biochemist or a geneticist to start issuing death threats like Michael Korn sent to UC Boulder’s biology department, those “terrorists against America.” So far, I wait in vain.

Scientists are men and women with all the foibles inherent in being human. The scientific process seeks to counter some of these flaws through openness and mutual cross-criticism — not always successfully, but often enough to make real progress. Professional creationism, on the other hand, is a disease of the moral organs. It is impossible to defend in an honest way blatant untruths such as the assertions at the heart of creationism; the ignorance and dishonesty inherent in that defense will inevitably infect all aspects of the practice.

(Thanks to the Bad Idea Blog for spotting the image.)

POSTSCRIPT: Above, I described the XVIVO animation as “beautiful although somewhat inaccurate.” The chief illustrator of the film, David Bolinsky, has elaborated on this point:
Continue reading Expelled: Immoral, Incompetent

Asimov on SF and Its Development

After my (ahem) uncharacteristic outburst of loathing in the previous post, I figure I should relax. Here, then, Gentle Reader, is Isaac Asimov, explaining the “Golden Age” of science fiction, when John Campbell tried to drag the genre out of its pulp ancestry.

And here is Asimov explaining what happened after that, in the Fifties and Sixties:
Continue reading Asimov on SF and Its Development

Wherein I am Short-Tempered

BPSDBOK, it’s time for a joke. This one is appropriate for the whole family and suitable, with minor modifications, for many occasions: What’s the difference between Rush Limbaugh and the Hindenburg?

One is a giant, flaming Nazi gasbag, and the other is a dirigible.

In this case, the gasbag also likes to parade blithering ignorance of science before the whole world. To wit:

In fact, one of these guys in Ben Stein’s movie, guy named Hawkins who’s over at Oxford I think, Oxford or Cambridge, Ben Stein goes over and interviews him in this movie, Expelled. The movie hits April 12th or the 16th. And he said, “Can you explain the origins of life with Darwinism?” “No, we can’t. Well, actually we can, but we don’t.”

Point one: when you’re criticizing a person, it’s good to get their name right, after which you can move on to knowing where they work and, maybe, understanding their position. Who in blazes is this “Hawkins” person? Must be that biologist trapped in a wheelchair. You know, the one who teaches about black holes’ DNA and how the Big Bang came from monkeys — he’s a professor at Oxlonbridgeford. Point two: the sack of lies known as the Expelled movie is opening on the 18th. It’s odd how amidst a fog of untruth, a minor factual error can shine forth like a searchlight.

Rush is all in a lather about some statements by the well-respected physicist Peter Higgs, who way back when proposed what is now known as the “Higgs boson,” a hypothetical particle which would explain “electroweak symmetry breaking” — roughly, why two of the four fundamental forces of the Universe are different from one another. Now, several years back a physicist by the name of Leon Lederman made what many people consider an unfortunate decision: he decided to call a book about the Higgs boson The God Particle. That’s one way to earn back your advance, I suppose, but it also has the perfectly predictable consequence that people will read more into the phrase than was intended.

“B-but I only wanted to draw an analogy between the way that electromagnetism and the weak nuclear force are different and the way that the Tower of Babel legend says people started speaking different languages!”

“Well, you should have called your book The Babel Particle, then. Would’ve sounded cooler, too. I could see Summer Glau playing the lead in a movie called The Babel Particle — she’s a ninja physicist, he’s an archaeologist, they solve crimes — but your title sounds like you had bills to pay and wanted to score some easy Templeton cash.”

I know I shouldn’t blame Lederman for fueling Rush Limbaugh’s insane dribbling, but really, I’m in pain right now, and I might not be acting with my customary kindness and good humor. Just listen:

In other words, he’s looking for a God particle. He’s looking for a particle to prove God. Dr. Higgs, please, just look out the window, Dr. Higgs. You see that tree? You see the grass? Whatever is outside your window, all of it, it’s God particles. Every aspect of it is God particles.

Pantheism has never found a worse spokesman.

Rush goes on to parrot some more of the falsehoods which Mark Mathis and Ben Stein have so kindly packaged, but honestly, they don’t deserve a full fisking. I suspect my time would be better spent channeling my disgust into a screenplay wherein Summer Glau plays a physicist who blends with shadows, walks between the raindrops and beats people up.

Survey: Favorite Classes

Have you ever eaten carbonated fruit?

My friends found a steel pressure vessel — exactly where, I haven’t dared to inquire — and we’ve started a series of scientific experiments. Various edible items are placed inside the vessel, which is sealed and pumped up to 5 atmospheres of CO2, and then placed in the refrigerator overnight. The results range from the odd (baked potato) to the delicious (navel orange, honeydew, applesauce). And let me tell you, burping for five minutes after eating a grapefruit is a novel experience.

So, while I recover from this experiment and prepare myself for the next one, it’s time for user-generated content! Yes, this is Web 3.11, after all, where you do the work and I luxuriate in advertising profits — and let me tell you, Google Adsense brings a whole new meaning to “micropayment.”

The first time I gave up and invited comments instead of doing work myself, I asked, “If you could fix one thing about the science-blogging experience, what would it be?” We heard requests for a better basic-knowledge infrastructure, something like an open archive of historically significant papers; also, voices were noted clamoring for better math support in blogs, for which Randall had a suggestion. In addition, one person had a single-world answer for what was broken about science blogging: “Nisbet.” Heaven only knows what got into that reader. . . although Australia’s best and brightest have an idea.

After that, I asked about “gateway physics books” — the sort of introductory or intermediate texts you could give a student who has enrolled in or just recently survived AP Physics. We received a couple nods to Halliday, Resnick and Walker, and small surprise, the Feynman Lectures too. For more, and if you have suggestions of your own, check the comments.

Today’s question is, at least in my bubble-addled brain, a logical follow-up to the last one. I expect my Gentle Readers have gone through a good many science classes all together, ranging from elementary school to post-graduate courses. What have been your favorites — and, if ranting is your thing, your least favorites as well?

City Lights at Night

This video, narrated by astronaut Don Pettit, was made from digital pictures taken on the International Space Station.

A passage from Sagan is eerily prescient. In Pale Blue Dot (1994) he takes a tour of the Earth from orbit, describing first the day-side and then the planet at night.

Some of the lights, though, are not due to cities. In North Africa, the Middle East, and Siberia, for example, there are very bright lights in a comparatively barren landscape — due, it turns out, to burnoff in oil and natural gas wells. [check!] In the Sea of Japan on the day you first look, there is a strange, triangular-shaped area of light. In daytime it corresponds to open ocean. This is no city. What could it be? It is in fact the Japanese squid fishing fleet, using brilliant illumination to attract schools of squid up to their deaths. [check!] On other days, this pattern of light wanders all over the Pacific Ocean, seeking prey. In effect, what you have discovered here is sushi.

It seems sobering to me that from space you can so readily detect some of the odds and ends of life on Earth — the gastrointestinal habits of ruminants, Japanese cuisine, the means of communicating with nomadic submarines that carry death for 200 cities — while so much of our monumental architecture, our greatest engineering works, our efforts to care for one another, are almost wholly invisible. It’s a kind of parable.

Way to be harsh on the maki, man.

(Via Neil Gaiman and Skepchick.)

The Perils of Fame

I’m not as excited by Doctor Who as — ahem — some people, but this news report made me perk up:

The evolutionary biologist and best-selling author of The God Delusion will appear as a guest star in the new series of Doctor Who, which began last night. “People were falling at his feet,” says Davies, creator of the BBC’s flagship show. “We’ve had Kylie Minogue on that set, but it was Dawkins people were worshipping.”

Cue the complaints that atheism is a cult of personality in 3. . . 2. . . .

(Thanks to Lee Brimmicombe-Wood at Pharyngula.)

UPDATE (7 April): He’s also become a D&D character, or more precisely, a “22th-level Evolutionary Biologist” with “spell resistance infinite” (because magic isn’t real).

Shorter Sal Cordova, Redux

BPSDBAn interesting development has unfolded in the math-blogging world. Sal Cordova, famous for calling Charles Darwin a puppy-killer, has attempted to show that he, Cordova, is not a stupefied ignoramus on the subject of quantum mechanics. Naturally, such ignorance would not be a crime, except that Cordova is hell-bent on using quantum physics to prop up his “Advanced Creation Science.” See here, here, here, here and here if you’ve been suffering a lack of reading material. If, on the other hand, you’re a busy citizen of the high-speed modern world, let us summarize:

If I post a comment in which I fail to address the criticisms leveled at me on a long-dead blog discussion thread and, two days later, crow about it before a sycophantic audience while intentionally mangling my critic’s name, not only will I demonstrate my intellectual superiority over the filthy Darwinists, but also, Jesus will bring me 72 virgins in Heaven.

Oh, by the way, an integral sign is not the same thing as an upper-case S.

Liveblagging: Geoffrey West

I’m sitting in MIT’s lecture hall 34-101, where a Venerable Personage is introducing today’s physics colloquium speaker, Geoffrey West (Santa Fe Institute). Like most colloquium speakers (or so it seems to me) West has a string of academic honors to his name; perhaps more unusual is his membership in Time magazine’s “100 most influential people” list, for which he was profiled by Murray Gell-Mann. (At that, he had more luck than Richard Dawkins.) West’s talk will concern scaling laws in living systems, and its abstract is as follows:

Life is very likely the most complex phenomenon in the Universe manifesting an extraordinary diversity of form and function over an enormous range. Yet, many of its most fundamental and complex phenomena scale with size in a surprisingly simple fashion. For example, metabolic rate scales as the 3/4-power of mass over 27 orders of magnitude from complex molecules up to the largest multicellular organisms. Similarly, time-scales, such as lifespans and growth-rates, increase with exponents which are typically simple powers of 1/4. It will be shown how these “universal” 1/4 power scaling laws follow from fundamental properties of the networks that sustain life, leading to a general quantitative, predictive theory that captures the essential features of many diverse biological systems. Examples will include animal and plant vascular systems, growth, cancer, aging and mortality, sleep, DNA nucleotide substitution rates. These ideas will be extended to social organisations: to what extent are these an extension of biology? Is a city, for example, “just” a very large organism? Analogous scaling laws reflecting underlying social network structure point to general principles of organization common to all cities, but, counter to biological systems, the pace of social life systematically increases with size. This has dramatic implications for growth, development and sustainability: innovation and wealth creation that fuel social systems, if left unchecked, potentially sow the seeds for their inevitable collapse.

Now, let’s see if I can keep up!


“I think it’s patently obvious that I’m not one of the hundred most influential people in the world,” West says, “which should be obvious after I’ve finished my talk.” There follows an amount of fumbling as West and the distinguished personage try to turn on the overhead projector — “We need an experimentalist!” — before the big red button is found, and the projector screen glows into life.
Continue reading Liveblagging: Geoffrey West

Wilson on Wikipedia

Geologist Mark Wilson has an interesting opinion piece at Inside Higher Ed,Professors Should Embrace Wikipedia.” While it was published on April Fool’s Day, one can take it in full seriousness. I don’t agree with it fully, but I believe the points it raises are well worth discussing. Here’s the nub of his argument:

What Wikipedia too often lacks is academic authority, or at least the perception of it. Most of its thousands of editors are anonymous, sometimes known only by an IP address or a cryptic username. Every article has a “talk” page for discussions of content, bias, and organization. “Revert” wars can rage out of control as one faction battles another over a few words in an article. Sometimes administrators have to step in and lock a page down until tempers cool and the main protagonists lose interest. The very anonymity of the editors is often the source of the problem: how do we know who has an authoritative grasp of the topic?

That is what academics do best. We can quickly sort out scholarly authority into complex hierarchies with a quick glance at a vita and a sniff at a publication list. We make many mistakes doing this, of course, but at least our debates are supported with citations and a modicum of civility because we are identifiable and we have our reputations to maintain and friends to keep. Maybe this academic culture can be added to the Wild West of Wikipedia to make it more useful for everyone?

And here’s his proposal for action:

I propose that all academics with research specialties, no matter how arcane (and nothing is too obscure for Wikipedia), enroll as identifiable editors of Wikipedia. We then watch over a few wikipages of our choosing, adding to them when appropriate, stepping in to resolve disputes when we know something useful. We can add new articles on topics which should be covered, and argue that others should be removed or combined. This is not to displace anonymous editors, many of whom possess vast amounts of valuable information and innovative ideas, but to add our authority and hard-won knowledge to this growing universal library.

An old saying has it that of all kinds of politics, academic is the nastiest, because the stakes are the lowest. One might fret that legions of quarrelsome professors would trample all over the pages pertaining to the controversies in their own specialized fields, bringing all the fury of the Dawkins/Gould or Fodor/Dennett deathmatches to the world of Wikipedia. However, I know of no evidence suggesting that these arguments would really be any more vituperative than the ones which already occur. Furthermore, Wikipedians with advanced degrees already exist; Wilson’s proposal would only bring in a larger number of them, perhaps with a shared ethos or sense of common purpose.
Continue reading Wilson on Wikipedia

Milestone of Dubious Merit

Since I started Science After Sunclipse a year and odd days ago, it has received 30,003 spam messages. On the 572 posts currently hosted here, 2,013 legitimate comments have been left (including replies I’ve made to others). So, just about one in every fifteen comments have been “ham” instead of spam.

Thirty kilospams. . . I feel like I should throw a party.