Entropy for Non-Majors

Every once in a while (well, actually, pretty frequently) I see a post out there in the Blagopelago which makes me feel bad about ranting so much and discussing science so little. Today’s entry in this category is Jacques Distler’s treatment of Boltzmann entropy. He explains his motivation as follows:

This semester, I’ve been teaching a Physics for non-Science majors (mostly Business School students) class.

Towards the end of the semester, we turned to Thermodynamics and, in particular, the subject of Entropy. The textbook had a discussion of ideal gases and of heat engines and whatnot. But, somewhere along the line, they made a totally mysterious leap to Boltzmann’s definition of Entropy. As important as Boltzmann’s insight is, it was presented in a fashion totally disconnected from Thermodynamics, or anything else that came before.

So, equipped with the Ideal Gas Law, and a little baby kinetic theory, I decided to see if I could present the argument leading to Boltzmann’s definition.

Continue reading Entropy for Non-Majors

Time: You’re On Notice!

In its quest to avoid irrelevance, Time Magazine has boldly surged into idiocy.

Remember a while back when this magazine-of-former-repute told us that “You” were the person of the year? As it happens, one of the Blagnet’s pixel-stained wretches predicted their choice over two months in advance, suggesting that no, we don’t need magazines to spout this kind of vanity — amateurs will do just as good a job for free.

A pragmatic person, given the job of managing a wood-pulp publication in these wild days of Web 3.1, would direct that publication’s efforts into doing things which the amateurs cannot. For example, they could send reporters to far-off locales, pull their strings to get inside connections, invest serious money in fact-checking and so forth. Alternatively, they could decide to outdo the Blagopelago through sheer force of idiocy. It’s not easy, but it could in theory be done.

Today, that theory has received empirical support.

Richard Dawkins is number 73 on the Time 100, and guess who they paid to write his profile.
Continue reading Time: You’re On Notice!

Bad Non-Journalism (Updated!)

This post originally written 28 April 2007 and updated the following week.

I’ve already wasted some of the Universe’s limited supply of ones and zeros writing about bad science journalism. I’ve even looked at one particular case in some detail (and believe me, I’ve got more on the way). Hopping over my various regular stops on the Blagnet this morning, however, I realized that bad journalism can be easier to spot than no journalism at all. In order to fix the system, we need to understand all of its failure modes.

Carl Zimmer writes of a story which should be making the rounds but isn’t:

You may perhaps recall a lot of attention paid to methane from plants back in January 2006. A team of scientists from the Max Planck Institute reported in Nature that they had found evidence that plants release huge amounts of the gas—perhaps accounting for ten to thirty percent of all the methane found in the atmosphere.

It’s not hard to imagine why people would get excited about this. Heck, anything which says plants are pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere is pundit food. “Trees cause more pollution than cars do!” Etc.

Now, the irritating thing about science is that bold claims can be tested, which a team of Dutch researchers have just done. Yesterday, their paper went online at New Phytologist. Tom A. Dueck et al. write the following in their summary:
Continue reading Bad Non-Journalism (Updated!)

Wired: Low Voltage

Wow, the hunt for extrasolar planets is really looking up:

NASA’s Terrestrial Planet Finder, or TPF, is already underway. The artist’s rendering shows a traditional telescope on the left — a visible-light chronograph — that will launch in 2016 and pick out likely candidates. An array of infrared telescopes (right) will launch four years later and look for life signatures.

So says a short in today’s Wired magazine by Bruce Gain and Kristen Philipkoski. Unfortunately, it looks like Wired is not fully plugged in. Keith Cowing of NASA Watch wrote well over a year ago,

According to NASA’s FY 2007 budget documentation “The Terrestrial Planet Finding project (TPF) has been deferred indefinitely.” In other words, it is dead. NASA is just afraid to say so.

As of 18 April 2007, the lack of funding means that TPF has no launch date. So, Wired notwithstanding, TPF is grounded. It just couldn’t get past the budgetary resistance.

Every once in a while I get the feeling that reporters can be real dim bulbs, you know?

(Via Steinn Sigurðsson.)

Even Though Mom Is Watching

I have to post about Quantum Tantra.

I’m a very ambitious physicist; I was trained at Stanford. I want not merely to find a new particle or equation but to discover an entirely new way of doing science. Quantum tantra aims to put humans in direct touch with nature without the mediation of instruments, without even those instruments called the senses. My needs are simple: I’d like to invent a truly gooey interface that connects my mind to other minds in the Universe. Modern physics is fully erect science; quantum tantra is physics on all fours.

Touching nature directly, and without the senses, eh? Sounds like, ahem, Tanuki-sized bollocks. Honestly, now, who wants to have sex where each motion is too tiny to be detected, and as soon as she observes you getting ready, your wavefunction collapses? (Besides, if there were anything legitimate in this, Richard Feynman would have discovered it already.)

This does, oddly, synchronize with the Attack of the Skinny Vixens which Dr. Joan Bushwell so kindly warns us about. Dr. Bushwell alerts us to this BBC story whose tagline reads, “Scientists are developing a pill which could boost women’s libido and reduce their appetite.” (Gee, I thought we were all supposed to be hunting down the God particle.) According to the BBC, Prof. Robert Millar of the Medical Research Council’s Human Reproduction Unit (in Edinburgh) believes that a pill based on “Type 2 Gonadotrophin-releasing hormone” will ramp up the libido of the human female whilst simultaneously lowering her appetite. Hey, it works with monkeys and shrews!
Continue reading Even Though Mom Is Watching

Call for Papers

I find it both interesting and heartening that several people’s first reaction to this was, in a word, “Sokal.”

High quality papers for the International Journal for Creation Research (IJCR), sponsored by the Institute for Creation Research, are now invited for submission. IJCR is a professional peer-reviewed online technical journal hosted by the ICR website for the publication of interdisciplinary scientific research from the perspective of a recent Creation and a global Flood within a biblical framework.

If this were the Discovery Institute, I’d say you should go for some blather about reverse engineering and Shannon information. Unfortunately, ICR wants Young-Earth papers:

Papers should be up to 10,000 words long, and color diagrams, figures and photographs are encouraged. Papers can be in any scientific, or social scientific, field, but must be from a young-earth perspective and aim to assist the development of the Creation Model of Origins. Papers should be submitted in a plain text, single line-spaced Word or RTF file. Formatting should be kept to an absolute minimum. Do NOT embed graphics, tables, figures or photographs in the text, but supply them in separate files, along with captions.

Naturally, the minions of darkness use Word. It was there in the beginning, don’cha know? I reproduce the following paragraph merely to include their e-mail address and increase their likelihood of being spammed:

Papers should be emailed as attached files to the IJCR Editor-in-Chief at aasnelling@ozemail.com.au, and other requirements followed as per the Author Checklist in the Instructions to Authors Manual. We aim to publish submitted papers within six (6) months of receipt.

Question: given the known distaste young-Earthers have for Intelligent Design advocates, would theobabble about “complexity” meet their standards? I’m genuinely curious. Are they more likely to accept anything which supports their cause, or to reject it because it sounds too much like those Old Earth science-appeasers?

Newsweek on Sex-Ed and Statistics

Via the Knight Science Journalism Tracker comes Sharon Begley’s story in Newsweek entitled “Sorting Out Good Science From Bad” (7 May issue, strangely enough). It runs under the sub-heading, “Just Say No — To Bad Science.” The content shouldn’t surprise anyone who grew up with Darrell Huff’s fascinating little book, How To Lie With Statistics (1954, reissued 1993). In a chatty two pages, Begley’s piece looks at one particular trick: selection bias.
Continue reading Newsweek on Sex-Ed and Statistics


Hi, Mom.

(She asked if I was alive and well, OK?)

Those of you who have read as far as the tagline of this site have probably noticed our fondness for neologisms and malapropisms and just downright silliness. Since anyone who visits Science After Sunclipse has certainly wasted at least one afternoon reading through the xkcd archive, you must already know the ultimate origin of our favorite malaprops:
Continue reading Neo-malaprops

Seriously, Now

Dear Internet:

There was a fourth Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie? It came out a month ago? And I never heard?

Seriously, Internet, you’re letting me down.

Oh. They never mentioned it on ScienceBlogs — that would explain a few things.

Not only do I feel betrayed by the Blagnet, but I also feel like I missed what could have been a deeply personal experience with resonances of happy times in my past. Back in high school, my friends all dressed up as the Turtles for Senior Ambition Day. I could have had some serious, only partially ironic enjoyment.

Curse you, perfidious Network!


James Barlow asked a good question down in the comments, which I thought was worth promoting to the top level.

Anyone got any ideas for completing this Foxworthy-esque statement:

You’re probably shilling for the Discovery Institute if. . .

Some suggestions:

  • You say the words “specified complexity” with a straight face.
  • You believe that a “Darwinist conspiracy” is keeping Intelligent Design out of the peer-reviewed journals.
  • Every claim you make has already been dissected at Talk Origins.

Further completions welcome!

American Teens Invent Cyberbrain

According to Thomas Hobbes, in the state of nature all men have equal power. Smarts, sticks and stones allow us to compensate for our physical differences and achieve parity. His Leviathan has its flaws, but it’s nice to see the process he described at work today, and in such an important environment as our schools. Via Orac comes the reassuring news that students continue to outsmart their teachers and administrators while learning valuable life skills:

Devices including iPods and Zunes can be hidden under clothing, with just an earbud and a wire snaking behind an ear and into a shirt collar to give them away, school officials say.

“It doesn’t take long to get out of the loop with teenagers,” said Mountain View High School Principal Aaron Maybon. “They come up with new and creative ways to cheat pretty fast.”

Mountain View recently enacted a ban on digital media players after school officials realized some students were downloading formulas and other material onto the players.

Furthermore, the administrators’ grasp of statistics and evidence-based reasoning — essential for citizens of the Enlightenment — continues at its all-time high:

Shana Kemp, spokeswoman for the National Association of Secondary School Principals, said she does not have hard statistics on the phenomenon but said it is not unusual for schools to ban digital media players.

“I think it is becoming a national trend,” she said. “We hope that each district will have a policy in place for technology — it keeps a lot of the problems down.”

Look, NASSP, you’ve got your priorities all backwards. Learning at a tender age how to follow prompting from a concealed “wire” is invaluable training for those of America’s youth who wish to enter politics!

To people (including Orac and Rob Knop) wondering why those darn kids are so willing to put energy into cheating when they could get good grades legitimately by putting the same effort into their studies. . . well, I should say that if you’re familiar with the tools you have, then using them isn’t much effort at all. If you have to memorize a lot of random whoosywhatsits, and you know you have a machine which can remember everything, what you do with it is a pretty simple deduction. Moreover, if you have no reason to suspect that what you’re told to memorize will ever be useful to you ever again, then you definitely burden the machine with it!

It’s really a Chinese Room problem. The student doesn’t understand the material, but the combined system student + iPod does. As long as they’re never separated from their iPod ever again, it’s fine! In fact, I believe this marks the first step on our species’ road to cyberization, a procedure which will have many benefits indeed. We should take pride in our nation’s youth and their pioneering spirit!

Blaggregation at Darwin’s

I slept uneasily, my dreams full of ticking clocks, of racing the dawn, of improbable clouds just before sunsight and obscure preparations against the day. I dreamed that I could fly by selecting parts of a petroglyph body in my Firefox window and indenting them to high speed. When I tried, I fell up a Blade Runner hill, careening over an empty freeway as slick as Teflon.

I woke up to an insistently beeping cellphone alarm and got dressed to the Lola Rennt soundtrack. Clutching a bottle of soda which I knew I shouldn’t drink since, like mental illness, diabetes runs in my family (but unlike mental illness, only on one side), I stepped out into a beautiful morning slightly too cold for my tweed eigenjacket and slightly too warm for my black leather trenchcoat. (I guess it’s never springtime in the Matrix.) Forty minutes of strolling later, with a song in my heart — specifically, Infected Mushroom’s “Cities of the Future” — I arrived at Darwin’s, a sandwich, coffee and pastry place near Harvard Square. It was five minutes till eight; I was early, but PZ Myers was earlier.
Continue reading Blaggregation at Darwin’s

Skeptic’s Circle

I just came back from breakfast with PZ Myers, one of the Reveres and friends to find that the 59th Skeptic’s Circle is online at Pooflingers Anonymous. We here at Sunclipse are represented by “Michael Egnor: Manipulative Liar” and “All the News that Fits, We Print“.

There’s lots of good stuff, it appears. Head on over to Confessions of an Anonymous Coward to spot the flaw in a “disproof” of relativity, and an interesting speculation on why people try to “debunk” relativity so often. Those who enjoyed my comments on science journalism should also appreciate Junk Food Science‘s treatment of “Salt Shaking News“.

And if the Skeptic’s Circle isn’t enough, Carl Zimmer just put up a metric armful of articles he’s written since 2001. His story archive looks like a fantastic time sink.

Finally, of course, we should all welcome Phil Plait into the League of Moral Ambiguity, for while he’s still vacillating between superhero and supervillain attributes, he’s definitely in a comic book!

UPDATE: Welcome, fellow Pharyngulans!

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

"no matter how gifted, you alone cannot change the world"