Category Archives: Popularization

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.”

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

Eta Carinae

I remember a time when it seemed like I was the only person in the world who knew that stars we could see in the night sky might one day go foom, letting us read at night or, possibly, destroying the habitability of our planet. Of course, I couldn’t have been alone in knowing this, since I found out about it by reading books by other people, but in the dark times of Web 0.1, before writers and scientists were people who listened to music and got in spats with one another, it was easy to feel alone while exploring the heavens.

And now, look, everybody who reads the Washington Post knows about Eta Carinae, thanks to Joel Achenbach:

I dropped by NASA headquarters last Monday to hear about the relatively nearby and extremely massive star that might explode at any moment. Remember the name: Eta Carinae. Sounds like an Italian opera singer, or maybe a snazzy little sports car. It’s a monster of a star — something like 120 times the mass of the sun, and roiling, heaving, spewing out gobs of star stuff in what may be the prelude to a cataclysmic bang, a supernova unlike any seen before.

If it blows, you might be able to read a book by its radiance at night — unless it fires a narrow beam of gamma rays right at us, in which case all bets are off. One astrophysicist on hand said, “It would probably destroy all the ozone in the atmosphere.” Similar to what we tried to do ourselves, before we banned those nasty chlorofluorocarbons. Eta Carinae would be like a giant can of 1950s hairspray. Not a pleasant picture.

Continue reading Eta Carinae

A Quarter of Everything

I have just two quibbles with this New Yorker article on the Large Hadron Collider to which Scott Aaronson directed my attention. First, throughout her informative story, Elizabeth Kolbert consistently abbreviates “Large Hadron Collider” as “L.H.C.” I’ve yet to see anybody in the physics community use the periods when they write “LHC.” Is this some official policy which we, the project’s website and the rest of the Internet just are too lazy to follow? Or are these strange little dots the product of a New Yorker in-house style guide demanding their presence based on some holier-than-Sinai rule about tiny ink specks? If the latter is the case, the foolish prescriptivist responsible needs an introduction to my friend the clue-by-four.

My second and marginally more serious complaint involves the following passage from page five:
Continue reading A Quarter of Everything

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

Press Release from AdS/CFT Territory

The good folks at Princeton have been beavering away at the esoteric, abstrusely mathematical yet infinitely tantalizing relationships between string theories and gauge theories. The latter are the rather well-respected mathematical descriptions of how the bits and pieces of atomic nuclei interact; the former is what you get when you look at the dawn of time, the centers of black holes and the other places where our understanding throws up its hands, and you jump in with both feet. Or, at least that’s what string theory was, back in 1997 or so.

Today, we’ve come to recognize that physics has a strange property: ideas you invent in one place pop their heads up where you never expected. Thus, supersymmetry — a mathematical concept invented in the 1970s to make string theory look a little more like the real world — branched off to become its own field of inquiry. In trying to figure out the implications of supersymmetry, Ed Witten and company invented supersymmetric quantum mechanics, which (among other things) gives you a wickedly delightful insight into all the problems professors use to torture their undergraduate physics students in Quantum Mechanics I.

The journey from string theory to SUSY QM leaves behind the essential “stringiness” of the original theory, but over the past several years, we’ve seen a whole slew of results which suggest that the math invented to quantize gravity, break the hearts of black holes and hold the Big Bang in our hands is also applicable to other, more accessible situations. Does this mean that string theory is the right path to quantizing gravity and all the rest? No, not necessarily. Does it mean that we can get our teeth into the equations and use experiments to see if at least some of our ideas work? Yes. Is knowing about this arena of activity a key part of understanding what physicists are doing today? Again, the answer is yes.

You can really hear the writer stretching for metaphors in the ScienceDaily story based on Princeton’s press release: “Between the two road sections lay a seemingly unbridgeable mathematical gulf”, etc. If you look at the paper which provoked this release, or even its abstract, you can appreciate why the press office’s language gets so tortured:

In two remarkable recent papers the planar perturbative expansion was proposed for the universal function of the coupling appearing in the dimensions of high-spin operators of the N=4 super Yang-Mills theory. We study numerically the integral equation derived by Beisert, Eden, and Staudacher, which resums the perturbative series. In a confirmation of the anti–de Sitter-space/conformal-field-theory (AdS/CFT) correspondence, we find a smooth function whose two leading terms at strong coupling match the results obtained for the semiclassical folded string spinning in AdS5. We also make a numerical prediction for the third term in the strong coupling series.

Clear as a kegger in a mud pit.

The press release tries to draw a layman-friendly picture, as I mentioned. At a slightly higher level of mathiness are Barton Zwiebach’s String Theory for Pedestrians lecture videos. (Yes, that’s the same Zwiebach who taught the class and wrote the book.) The AdS/CFT correspondence stuff appears in the second and third lectures of the three-lecture series.

(Tip o’ the string theorist’s beret to Peter Steinberg.)

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

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

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

New Scientist, the EmDrive and the Wobosphere

shnood: (roughly) an imposter; a person oblivious to just how trivial or wrong his ideas are.

“Were there any interesting speakers at the conference?”
“No, just a bunch of shnoods.

“The magazine New Scientist loves to feature shnoods on the cover.”

Note: someone who’s utterly contemptible would not be a shnood, but rather a schmuck.

— Scott Aaronson (27 May 2006)

Those of you interested in the way the Wobosphere functions as a disputation arena (“We Can Fact-Check Yo’ Ass!”) may be interested in the following sordid tale of intrigue and skullduggery. I originally wrote most of this last October, in a lengthy comment on David Brin’s blog. The moral of the story, insofar as I can find one, is this: if you say that you can move your car forward by bouncing a soccer ball back and forth inside it fifty thousand times, you’ll get a quizzical look (at best). If you say the same thing but with “microwave photons” instead of soccer balls, you’re reporting on cutting-edge science!

Back in September, New Scientist magazine published an article on the “EmDrive”, a machine purportedly able to propel itself using microwaves bouncing inside a box. Those of us who remember the Dean drive and umpty-ump other wonder machines have no trouble recognizing this as the same old stuff: like all the wonder-powered spacedrives before it, it can only putter forward by violating the conservation of momentum. New Scientist‘s reportage provoked science-fiction writer Greg Egan to write an open letter saying he was “gobsmacked by the level of scientific illiteracy” the magazine showed.

So it goes, as they say on Tralfamadore. Claims of exotic spacedrives fuelled by violations of fundamental physics are, sadly but understandably, about twopence a dozen. The aspect of the affair which Egan found truly disturbing — indeed, reprehensible — was the way New Scientist glibly provided a “news” piece full of pseudoscientific gibberish purely to justify how the EmDrive might work. (Their argument really pushed the limits of the absurd, too: Einstein’s relativity has momentum conservation built into its mathematical structure, so you can’t use relativity jargon like “reference frames” to sidestep the conservation law.)

Egan posted his letter to the moderated Usenet group sci.physics.research, and the physicist John Baez put a copy on the blog he co-hosts, The n-Category Cafe. This spurred enough people to write New Scientist that the magazine opened a blog thread to discuss the issue, opening with a self-exusing note from the editor, Jeremy Webb. (Said note, as far as I can tell, satisfied nobody.)
Continue reading New Scientist, the EmDrive and the Wobosphere

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

Addiction

I seem to have some kind of dopaminergic reward pathway established for blog commenting. Every time I see a new post, I know I’ll either be happy because I agree with it, or I’ll get that little surge from disagreeing vocally! Any time I see a remark about “framing,” I’m either gonna like you or hate your guts, and my natural argumentative streak gives me a positive brain-boost either way.

Trying to find a simple principle which completely covers a complex and heterogeneous set of overlapping problems in which our pious platitudes frequently conflict with one another is, as Sean Carroll says, a mistake. Complex problems, regrettably, often demand complex solutions. If this discussion had, from the beginning, focused on specific and concrete examples, I believe we would have seen much more agreement — and much more productive disagreement!

Blogs are the enkephalins of the masses.

Enough of this. It doesn’t make a difference.

May I remind everyone that Michael Egnor is still saying ridiculous things?