Category Archives: Favorites

Overbye on Hunting the Higgs

Dennis Overbye has an article in today’s New York Times on the search for the Higgs boson, and naturally, I’ve got complaints about it. It’s a pretty good piece: Overbye can do solid work (he went a little overboard looking for journalistic “balance” in the Bogdanov Affair, but that was a while ago). Still, I wouldn’t be myself if I couldn’t gripe and grouse.

First, I’m definitely not alone in asking people to please stop saying “God particle.” Leon Lederman has a great deal to answer for after coining this term; I’ve never heard or seen physicists use it seriously, and it keeps inviting unwarranted metaphors. (Incidentally, there was once detected an “Oh-My-God Particle,” a cosmic-ray proton of astonishingly high energy; for recent developments in this ultra-high-energy regime, see here. Physicists joke about the term, but they don’t use it.)

Second, this part rubs me the wrong way:
Continue reading Overbye on Hunting the Higgs


Zeno mourns that his calculus students can’t read their own handwriting. Not only do their 2s become zeds, but their thetas become phis and their phis become rhos:

[tex]\theta \rightarrow \phi,\ \varphi \rightarrow \rho.[/tex]

Personally, it was the xi which always gave me trouble. That stupid little [tex]\xi[/tex] never came out right — and I know I’m not alone here. In that introductory string theory course of sainted memory, Prof. Zwiebach astonished our whole class by writing them freehand on the blackboard.

You know, in retrospect, I wish my elementary school had skipped the cursive lessons and taught me how to write Greek letters. Oh, and “blackboard bold” characters too, the funky symbols with extra lines like [tex]\mathbb{R}[/tex] and [tex]\mathbb{C}[/tex] (these particular ones are used to stand for the real and complex number sets, respectively). I use Greek letters every day, but when was the last time I had to write in cursive?

My signature doesn’t count. That’s not writing; that’s a mad scribble. I don’t know if Mom ever wanted me to be a doctor, but I’ve lived up to that in one respect at least. My autograph starts with a smushed B, continues with a series of wiggles interrupted by a figure that’s more an ampersand than an S, followed by another brood of squiggles. The cross on the t slashes across my entire name like the mark of Zorro.

And nobody cares! The bank has never returned a rent check to me with a red stamp saying, “D minus for penmanship.”
Continue reading Handwriting

The Physics of Nonphysical Systems

We just heard Steinn Sigurðsson complain that there’s no science in Harry Potter, and therefore the book title The Science of Harry Potter is a non-starter. Jennifer Ouellette then leaped to its defense:

I think in this instance, I’d conjure the spirit of Arthur C. Clarke: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” :)

But then, that’s just the sort of viewpoint you’d expect from somone who wrote about the physics of the Buffyverse.

In a display of the kind of synchronicity one might expect whenever the system is large and the selection criteria are loose, Bee at Backreaction just pointed to a new paper on the arXiv, “Hollywood Blockbusters: Unlimited Fun but Limited Science Literacy” (9 July 2007). C.J. Efthimiou and R.A. Llewellyn declare their intentions as follows:

In this article, we examine specific scenes from popular action and sci-fi movies and show how they blatantly break the laws of physics, all in the name of entertainment, but coincidentally contributing to science illiteracy.

Movies under their microscope include Speed (1994), where projectile motion is thrown out the window; Spiderman (2002), which stretches Newton past the breaking point; Aeon Flux (2005), whose muscles really have to torque; The Core (2003), which just doesn’t float at all; Superman (1978), which ought to make a physicist’s head spin; X-Men: The Last Stand (2006), whose finale is cut loose from reality; and The Chronicles of Riddick (2004), which I haven’t seen.
Continue reading The Physics of Nonphysical Systems

Michael Egnor: 2400 Years Behind the Times

BPSDBI nearly sprayed my breakfast across my friend’s new flatscreen monitor when I saw the latest from Michael Egnor:

Clearly the brain, as a material substance, causes movement of the body, which is also a material substance. The links are nerves and muscles. But there is no material link between our ideas and our brains, because ideas aren’t material.

Mr. Spock, are your sensors detecting any signs of intelligent life?
Continue reading Michael Egnor: 2400 Years Behind the Times

Chu-Carroll on Behe’s The Edge of Evolution

Dear Gentle Readers: At the bottom of this essay, I’m collecting links to reviews of Behe’s book The Edge of Evolution, replies to reviews and so forth.

Well, now the burden is off me, and I can devote my book-reviewing time to good books, like the works of Hector Avalos. Mark Chu-Carroll has reviewed Michael Behe’s new book, The Edge of Evolution. In short, it’s as bad as I thought it would be. When I first heard about it, the only information available was the flap copy: the publisher’s blurb and four laudatory quotes. I found that with a trivial amount of Web-searching, each laudator was revealed to be a creationist sympathizer — which didn’t bode well for the contents of the book itself. What, they couldn’t get even one serious biologist to say something good about it?

My prediction, although in principle falsifiable, was not falsified but instead borne out by further investigation. Don’t you love it when that happens?

Behe’s new book comes at an interesting time in the ongoing struggle against arrogant ignorance. Once upon a time, the law mandated that Genesis be taught in science classrooms; then came “equal time” for science and mystical anti-science, followed by “creationism” and “creation science” which then became “Intelligent Design,” about which we had to “teach the controversy.” (Of course, like a linear portrayal of biological evolution, this little “X followed by Y” story focuses only on one path, on a single twig of a ceaselessly diversifying bush. Just as there are still living descendants of the dinosaurs, there are still Old Earth Creationists, ideological descendants occupying their own branch of the phylomemetic tree.) After the thumping “Intelligent Design” got at Dover, many of us wondered how the opposition to reason would reinvent itself. One strategy, embraced by at least one twig, is to rebrand the very word evolution:
Continue reading Chu-Carroll on Behe’s The Edge of Evolution

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

Cosmos 2.0

I expect that by now we’ve all learned to be a little wary of X 2.0, just like we wonder what’s being oversimplified when we see “the New X” or, worse yet, “X is the new Y.” We know that anything 2.0 should be approached with curiosity, skepticism and a sense of humor. Such is the spirit I would like to evoke for the following post, which I’m recycling from this Memoirs of a Skepchick comment.

The subject was brought back to my attention, oddly enough, by the Time Magazine list of most hoopla-ed people about which I already ranted. In addition to bashing my head against my desk thanks to the Dawkins profile, I happened to check Neil deGrasse Tyson‘s write-up (authored by Michael Lemonick). I could only think that Lemonick exaggerates Tyson’s name-recognition factor and meme-market capitalization. He fits Tyson neatly into the “next Carl Sagan” slot, but in my humble (cough, cough) estimation, Tyson has a fair way to go. As I mentioned a few days ago, the subject of “science superstars” came up during my breakfast chat with PZ Myers. Not long after I arrived, before the others showed up, we got to talking about how one invents a scientist persona for the mass media. Adam Bly, Seed Magazine’s founder and Editor-in-Chief, appears to be taking Sagan as his archetype. Notice that we’re all still looking for “the next Carl Sagan,” not somebody who is “bigger and badder and sexier than Neil deGrasse Tyson.” In other words, I wish Tyson were as famous as Lemonick makes him out to be.

(I was also a trifle irked by Lemonick’s statement that Sagan guest-starred on Johnny Carson’s show while Tyson trades jokes with Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. Apples and tangerines! Three decades ago, was satire the only channel of intellect TV provided?)
Continue reading Cosmos 2.0

Moral Code Zero

And now, we return (momentarily) to Earth, where Warren Ellis has found a particularly inane screed from the Science Fiction Writers of America’s current vice-president. Quoting just a little bit:

I’m also opposed to the increasing presence in our organization of webscabs, who post their creations on the net for free. A scab is someone who works for less than union wages or on non-union terms; more broadly, a scab is someone who feathers his own nest and advances his own career by undercutting the efforts of his fellow workers to gain better pay and working conditions for all. Webscabs claim they’re just posting their books for free in an attempt to market and publicize them, but to my mind they’re undercutting those of us who aren’t giving it away for free and are trying to get publishers to pay a better wage for our hard work.

The comments on Ellis’s site are, for the most part, scathing (although one person already wonders if it’s all a joke). Snide remarks about “webscabs” are just the sort of thing which make me want to give words away for free. Unfortunately, I don’t have too much science fiction sitting around in such a state that I would call it ready for release. . . .

One SF vignette follows below the fold. Nothing serious — just some text with which one can play “Count the Allusions.”
Continue reading Moral Code Zero

All the News that Fits, We Print

I have a theory about science journalism.

Well, perhaps “model” or “hypothesis” would be a better word. Also, the basic idea isn’t original with me, but I think I can pull together pertinent evidence from a wider variety of stories than most writing-watchers have done, thereby casting (I hope) a little more light.

I don’t know how many of my skeptical blagofriends are in the habit of reading Mind Hacks, so I figured I’d convey along this post by Vaughan about “electronic smog”.

The Independent on Sunday has the dubious honour of publishing one of the worst pieces of science journalism I have ever read on today’s front cover — claiming to ‘reveal’ that children are at risk from Wi-Fi computer networks because of their developing nervous systems.

The headlines include “Children at risk from electronic smog”, “Revealed: radiation threat from new wireless computer networks”, “Fears rise over health threat to children from wifi networks” and “Danger on the airwaves”.

This is despite the fact that not one single study has found a health risk for wifi networks.

Gotta love those extra letters in funny foreign words like honour.
Continue reading All the News that Fits, We Print

Mentally Ill People on TV

A funny thing happened to me this morning in connection with mass murder and the tragic extinction of human life.

I was walking to the office for another day of PHP-coding, and on Kirkland Street, I was stopped by a suit-wearing man whose close-cropped gray hair reminded me distantly of an evil landlord I once knew. He carried a microphone with, I believe, the CBS logo (I’m nearsighted and unobservant), and he was accompanied by another man carrying a TV camera. The microphone man asked, “Could we talk to you for a minute?”

“Sure,” I said. “What about?”

The shootings at Virginia Tech,” he replied, although he didn’t use hyperlinks (most people don’t, in ordinary speech). “And the footage that NBC put out about the killer.”

“Oh, I hadn’t seen it,” I said, which was true. A bit of web-crawling leads me to suspect that this “video manifesto” is what they were talking about, or part of it. See also Google Video. I’m not sure if there was any reason they picked me as opposed to any other pedestrian, and I don’t know how many other people they filmed. Perhaps a guy in a black trenchcoat, black fedora and Sinfest T-shirt is automatically the best guy to interview about a school shooting; I dunno.

They said that NBC had put video online from the killer (Cho Seung-Hui), and they asked me what I thought about that. What were my very first words?

“Well, I’m a firm believer in a transparent society.”

Yessir, meeting David Brin at ICCS 2006 sure ruined my ability to talk like a normal human being. Oh, wait, I lost that a long time ago — never mind.

I said that the whole thing was a tragedy, but the best thing we can do is prevent future tragedies and in order to do that we have to understand what happened this time. If there’s something that dark in human nature, we have to know about it, I told them. They thanked me and we started walking our separate ways. As I strode off, I heard one say to the other, “Okay, we got it.” Maybe I’ll be on the local CBS affiliate talking about preventing disaster through understanding, but I sort of doubt it.

They should have asked me for my Bill Hicks impression. Now that would be worth putting on TV.

UPDATE: See what Joel Achenbach has to say about this. His thinking seems to match up with mine.


“Well I’m a firm believer in a transparent society and if there is something that disgusting in human nature we mind [sic] as well be aware of it,” said one person WBZ’s Joe Shortsleeve spoke to.

Interestingly, when I saw myself appear on the screen, I called out, “I’m on TV!” just as anybody would in that circumstance. A friend of mine then walked past the computer just as the female news anchor asked, “How does the public benefit from seeing someone on TV who is clearly mentally ill?” He burst out gut-laughing. I’m not sure what that means, but probably nothing good. So it goes.

UPDATE THE THIRD: WBZ-TV makes it slightly tricky to link directly to the video you want, but try this.

I Was Framed!

Not too long ago, the way the outside world tells time, Matthew Nisbet and Chris Mooney published a paper in Science on the topic of “Framing.” Well, ’tweren’t really a paper — truth be told, it was more like an Op-Ed with footnotes. This being the Internet, humorous and ironic points have all been pointed out before you can get to them: as several people have said before, this essay on how to improve science communication was locked behind a subscription wall like a callipygian slave girl in the harem of academic orthodoxy.

What, you think I just went a simile too far? You try reading an explosion of interacting, conflicting blogs with scores of articulate and angry commenters, and just you see if you can stop your twenty-two remaining neurons from spewing up a metaphysical conceit of saturnine if not Jovian proportions.

There’s a technical definition of “framing” in the anthropological literature (or rather, a “turf battle” of several vaguely related and conflicting definitions, which doesn’t help), but the general sense in which most people seem to have interpreted the notion is that scientific ideas — global warming, evolution, Pluto not being a planet no more, etc. — should be wrapped in carefully chosen rhetoric like viruses coated in lipid membranes stolen from their hosts in order to evade the immune system, which is in this case the public’s reluctance to listen to scientific issues. It’s been said that this is really no different than what we science folk do every day when writing our grant proposals, speaking at conferences, glossing over the subtleties in freshman biology class and so forth.

Unfortunately, what could and should have been a useful discussion about communicating science when our society needs it most turned out, well, broken. To illustrate, I can hardly do better than quote PZ Myers:

I’m not playing dumb, I really am confused. I’ve got people telling me I already use frames, that I use frames well, that I use them badly, that I’m ignoring frames at my peril, what I’m describing isn’t framing, what I’m describing is framing, that frames are this thing or that thing or this other thing.

I’m getting next to nothing that’s practical. OK, don’t call it “evolutionary theory”, call it “evolutionary biology”. Is that it?

Maybe I do need a course in this.

I would like to argue that the confusion and general cross-purposes painfully evident in the Blagnet discussion indicates two things: first, that the initial Nisbet–Mooney paper was a thrust in the wrong direction, and second, that we are confronting a fundamental limitation of the way the Web currently operates.
Continue reading I Was Framed!

Recycled Blake Stacey: Following Godwin’s Example

Fellow Molly-winner Scott Hatfield (who sounds like a really nice guy, judging from the textual evidence available) suggested I save a comment I posted at Pharyngula. Now, I know I improve drastically upon revision, but the text reproduced below will not be modified very much (mostly external hyperlinks added and stuff like that).

I was provoked by the following comment from a bloke named Russell:

I have encountered Objectivists and Marxists who seem to me fundamentalist in their adherence to the writings they take as foundational, in much the same manner as fundamentalist Christians. But neither Dawkins nor Harris strike me as ideological in that sense, and it seems as odd to me to describe an Objectivist as a fundamentalist atheist as it would to describe a Calvinist Christian as a fundamentalist determinist. Atheism and determinism are merely doctrines of Objectivism and Calvinism, respectively, and it is the ideology as a whole that the adherent takes in a fundamentalist fashion.

Were I less enamored of the sound of my own words, I would have stopped with a simple “thank you”. However, you little know me if you hypothesize of such a stoppage ever occurring. The proposal I made (which popped into my head while I was walking to the office this morning) is reproduced below the fold.

Continue reading Recycled Blake Stacey: Following Godwin’s Example