science

Now We are Seven Billion! La, La, La

Monday, October 31st, 2011

Despite the evident threat to the well being of our descendants some idiots keep asserting that the "Population bomb theory is a myth".

What complete nonsense! For one thing China's "economic miracle" comes after 30 years of having a one child policy, for another, despite improvements in some areas we still can't provide decent standards for a substantial fraction of the world's population, and for a third, to maintain the standards of those who do now live in luxury is already having environmental consequences (eg ocean acidification and global warming) that appear to be beyond our control. It is thus grossly irresponsible to keep betting on future technology to provide an acceptable standard of living for a population that keeps growing faster than we can bribe it into satiated infertility. Shame on those who continue putting all of our children at risk!

Sustainable Energy Choices

Wednesday, June 29th, 2011

Barry Brooks at 'BraveNewClimate' has made a brave effort at summing up the need for nuclear power as part of the CO2-free mix in a brief video, but parts of it still felt to me like “industry propaganda” – to the extent that I might be a bit embarrassed if anyone seeing my earlier references to the BNC site should subsequently come across it.
My first concern is that very little argument is given to support the claim that non-nuclear options won't suffice. No-one is likely to be convinced that just because Denmark has not yet displaced anything close to the major part of their coal use with wind that they may not eventually do so (though I suspect that in fact they won't), and the use of that as an apparent argument will just make the case seem weak and forced. Another point that troubles me is at the conclusion where the video compares the golf ball sized lump of nuclear fuel that is capable of providing enough energy to meet the needs of a typical western human lifetime with the many tons of coal that it would "displace". I suspect that this will seem obviously “unfair” even to those who cannot say why (The only comparison that really matters is with volume of ore rather than volume of fuel).

Of course is hard to tell the full story so briefly, but if it can’t be done well enough then it were better not done at all. The BNC site has a lot of credibility but the video actually undermines it so I actually hope  it doesn’t "go viral".

 

Twisted Language in Physics

Wednesday, June 22nd, 2011

From the discussion in Quantum Diaries, it seems that helicity is a property of motion and chirality a property of shape (where, in the case of an elementary particle, this might be represented by something like the shape of a level surface of its wave function).

The language chosen by physicists is unfortunate as a helix is an object with fixed chirality but the chirality of the path of a “helical” motion depends on the relative motion of the medium in which it is traced.

Creationism at the Royal Society

Saturday, April 9th, 2011

This would be old news but for the fact that the Royal Society's president at the time was Martin Rees - who might now be seen by some as finally getting his reward for letting it happen.  On the other hand, Rees does seem genuinely bemused about the award so perhaps, in his mind at least, there is no connection. Many evangelical atheists object that Reese's accepting the Templeton prize lends credibility to the foundation - something I wouldn't have given much credence to except for the fact that someone called Mark Vernon is crowing exactly that.

And They have the guns!

Friday, March 25th, 2011

From Discover Magazine:

Moral Realism

Thursday, March 24th, 2011

Sean Carroll has taken issue with Richard Carrier over the latter's position on Moral Realism.

On reading Carrier  I think that his real point is (or should be) that realism and relativism are not in conflict. Moral values, like the economic value of diamonds, may be relative but are real nonetheless. The existence of absolute moral values on the other hand is not supported by anything in his argument.

Carrier is probably correct in asserting  the existence of such things as “moral facts” that are “true independent of your opinion or culture” in the sense that our moral sense probably does include principles that are the same in all human cultures, and that we may sometimes be mistaken in our judgement of what action will subsequently give us the greatest moral satisfaction. But he provides nothing to support the idea that such principles are mutually consistent or that their "value" has any meaning outside the context of human culture.

I would add that Carrier shares with Sam Harris the blunder of referring to things like “the consequences you would want most”(assuming blah blah blah) without understanding that there is probably no single real variable which measures our level of “total satisfaction” at even a single instant (let alone integrated over time).

Algorithmic Babies and the Chinese Room

Thursday, February 24th, 2011

I commented at Stephen Downes' website on Patricia Kuhl's TED talk about "The Linguistic Genius of Babies". My quibble was less with the content than with the sentimentalized headline, because, although the babies' brains do appear to implement a sophisticated statistical algorithm (to identify the phonemes of relevance to the language of their community), there is of course no serious suggestion that they actually understand the process any more than our immune system understands the "algorithms" by which it operates or  snowflakes and other crystals understands the symmetry groups which govern the way they construct themselves. ...more »

Defining Evolution

Monday, February 21st, 2011

When I read the title of this piece (Theologians Lobby Successfully to Change Definition of Evolution | Cosmic Variance | Discover Magazine)I was prepared to get angry. But instead I am embarrassed on behalf of those who are complaining about the change (which happened more than ten years ago).

Apparently the US National Association of Biology Teachers was persuaded to delete the word "unsupervised" from the following statement:

The diversity of life on earth is the result of evolution: an unsupervised, impersonal, unpredictable and natural process of temporal descent with genetic modification that is affected by natural selection, chance, historical contingencies and changing environments.

Now apart from its awfulness as a bit of language this is indeed wrong on several counts.

Perhaps most importantly, it appears to deny the predictive capacity that is essential for a "scientific" theory. In fact, the theory of evolution does have some predictive capability (though albeit of a stochastic nature). So the unqualified use of  "unpredictable" must be inappropriate.

Also, although it does not require supervision or purpose, the theory of evolution makes no statement regarding their absence. So to include the word "unsupervised" was indeed just plain wrong. ...more »

"The Belief Instinct"

Monday, February 21st, 2011

Jesse Bering's "The Belief Instinct" is described as an exploration of possible sources of religion in cognitive tendencies towards a sense of being observed even when we have no evidence for it. To support this idea he reportedly both cites experimental evidence and postulates evolutionary explanations - which lead him to identify "adaptive illusion" as being behind the development of religion in our species (but I suspect what he means is  that it is just a susceptibility to  illusions of being monitored rather than any specific illusion itself that may be innate).

Apostate Theocon Damon Linker, writing in The New Republic, finds all this "marvelously informative and endlessly infuriating". He says he does not like the mix of  "experimental data about modern civilized human beings and groundless speculation about our evolutionary ancestors", but what he is most upset about is his belief that if we accept Bering's thesis then a "possible consequence is that we will take his arguments to heart and seek to live truthfully, without illusions—which in this case is to say, without shame." And by the end of the review has worked himself up into quite a state of angry confusion and despair. But I think he misunderstands the implications. Giving up and/or resisting the illusion of oversight by an external god-like being does not mean giving up the moral values that entity is presumed to enforce (or the fear of incurring our own self-disapproval and/or of having bad behaviour noted and reported to our peers). So there is no reason to believe that we must either "begin shamelessly shitting on ourselves in public" or be subject to "sustained, ongoing, irredeemable self-deception". There really is an honourable and moral alternative.

Christopher Norris Defends Philosophy

Sunday, February 20th, 2011

Christopher Norris has written an article in Philosophy Now defending the Philosophy of Science from allegations of its irrelevance by scientists (most recently Stephen Hawking for example).  Norris alleges the existence of "scientists’ need to philosophize and their proneness to philosophize badly or commit certain avoidable errors if they don’t take at least some passing interest in what philosophers have to say", and he asserts that modern theorists  "appear unworried – blithely unfazed, one is tempted to say – by the fact that their theories are incapable of proof or confirmation, or indeed of falsification..."  and further that "scientific theories – especially theories of the ultra-speculative kind that preoccupy theoretical physicists like Hawking – involve a great deal of covert philosophising which may or may not turn out to promote the interests of knowledge and truth". All of these claims might be considered plausible on the basis of attempts to "explain" quantum physics (and beyond) in popular literature, where analogies (which often really are used by physicists, but just to help guide their intuition) are often all that is provided.   It is true that some of these accounts can be faulted for not admitting that that is what they are doing, and perhaps that needs pointing out. But Norris seems to be doing the opposite by confusing the intuition-guiding analogies with the theories themselves.

Mythical Myths #3 - The Concept of Race

Tuesday, February 15th, 2011

Oh damn! I had no particular wish to address this until browsing led me by chance to RACE - The Power of an Illusion at PBS where a bunch of well intentioned people are discrediting anti-racism by associating it with a poorly argued denial that a meaningful concept of race even exists.

It is indeed popular these days among those who don't like the way that it has been used to assert that the concept of race does not correspond to anything scientifically definable and so is a "myth", but this is really just wishful thinking and the idea that race is a myth is itself a myth, which makes race another example of what I identify as "Mythical Myths" (ie attempts to identify as myths things which really are real).

It is true that the concept of race may have little utility in human affairs, and whatever utility it does have may be more negative than positive, but it is silly to deny that it has any meaning at all. Whether desirable or not, it is a fact that most people can quickly and correctly identify the ancestral continent (and maybe even a much more specific territory) of a significant fraction of those they meet. This is because isolated populations over many generations do develop observable differences in appearance (and perhaps other factors as well). The fact that the classification of people into races is not complete or 100% reliable does not make it meaningless or undefinable. For example (just to make the point and without expectation that it will be useful for any other purpose) the following might be a reasonable "scientific" definition:

A race of strength s is a human population which has been sufficiently isolated for sufficiently long that (through either just random genetic drift or perhaps sexual selection or evolution in response to local environment) its members differ in their mean value of some computable combination of measurable characteristics from the global mean of non-members by more than 2s standard deviations.

(So if we use the criterion of guessing that a person is of a particular race of strength s if that person's measurement of the relevant parameter is within s standard deviations of the racial mean, then for a race of strength 2, assuming normal distribution of the parameter, a randomly chosen non-member has only a 2.5% chance of being misidentified as a member of the race, and similarly for strength 1 the chance of misidentification of a non-member is about 16%).

Of course not everyone will have an identifiable race, and with reduced isolation it can be expected that the "strengths" of all races will decline over time, but I am sure that it will take at least several more generations before it is impossible to say with confidence of at least half of the people we meet that they have at least one ancestor within the past twenty generations who lived in Africa, Asia, or Europe. And it will be a very long time before we cannot identify for at least some individuals much more specific ancestral histories just on the basis of a quick visual inspection. In the meantime it may be socially harmful to pay much attention to these possibilities but it is foolish to deny that something is possible just because we don't want people to do it.

[1] The above-linked PBS site attempts to justify the claim that "Race has no genetic basis" with the explanation "Not one characteristic, trait, or gene distinguishes all members of one so-called race from all members of another so-called race." That this second statement is probably true does imply that no race is defined by the presence or absence of a single gene, but that is not the only possible genetic basis for a classification scheme. It may well be that our identification of a person's race (when possible) is by reference to a combination of several characteristics - each of which may result from the activation of a multitude of genes and indeed the suggestion that a characteristic not linked definitively to a specific gene "has no genetic basis" is so simplistically wrong as to completely discredit its proponent.

[2] A "quiz" associated with the site includes the question "Which of the following is likely to be your ancestor?: (A)Nefertiti, (B)Julius Caesar, (C)Qin Shi Huang - first emperor of China, (D)All of the above, (E)None of the above." with the answer given as (D) on the basis of a silly argument about numbers of ancestors which neglects the effect of isolation of populations.

Sunrise and Sunset at Solstices

Monday, January 3rd, 2011

It is curious that the days of shortest and longest periods of sunlight (which just about everyone knows are due to the tilt of the earth's spin axis relative to the plane of its orbit)  are not everywhere the same as those of latest and earliest sunrise. This is because the length of the full solar day is not actually constant and so the time of solar noon oscillates around the time that would correspond to noon on a steadily progressing clock.

This is often attributed to the eccentricity of the earth's orbit, and that does play a minor role. But actually, the effect is mainly due to another effect of the earth's tilt - a secondary effect on the difference between the length of a full solar day (taken by an apparent revolution of the sun from noon to noon) and a constant sidereal day (taken for a full revolution relative to the distant stars).

The Chinese Room

Thursday, December 9th, 2010

Stephen Downes links to this notice about three free Philosophy courses from John Searle who is famous for his Chinese Room thought experiment.  Now Searle may be a great teacher, and the 'Chinese Room' may be a useful paedagogical device, but I'm afraid I have difficulty respecting any dsicipline which ever in modern times treated it as anything more than that.
...more »

Miraculous Magnetic Clowns

Monday, November 29th, 2010

James McGirk, writing in 3quarksdaily, repeats the widely stated claim that the Insane Clown Posse display inexcusable ignorance when they claim, in their song 'Miracles', to be mystified by magnets.

One line in particular snagged the world’s attention: “Water, fire, air and dirt, Fucking magnets, how do they work?” Magnetism being a staple of primary school science education, the line struck many casual listeners as spectacularly ignorant.

The explanation of magnetism is definitely NOT a "staple of primary school science education" and the widespread disdain for that line in the song shows greater ignorance than the line itself.

In fact, when one commenter on the youTube site asserts that  "33,316 people know how magnets work scientifically" (which would be about five people in a million worldwide), that actually sounds about right.

I would venture to suggest also that, of those of us that do understand how magnets work, most consider it a miracle only slightly less astounding than the fact that we can actually understand it.

The Inheritors of What?

Thursday, November 18th, 2010

A new book by Eric Kaufmann entitled Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth?: Demography and Politics in the Twenty-First Century is reviewed by Phillip Longman in 'Big Questions Online'. An open question, I guess, is whether or not there is an inheritable tendency towards religiosity and, if so, how it is related to fertility within a particular society. But a bigger related question may be:  if the over-breeders can't be stopped, then what kind of earth will there be for them to inherit?

The Myth of Separate Magisteria | Big Questions Online

Monday, November 15th, 2010

The Myth of Separate Magisteria | Big Questions Online.

The main problem (aside from its pretentious name) with Stephen Jay Gould's concept of "Non-overlapping Magisteria" as a resolution of the "conflict" between science and religion is the fact that many religions fail to respect the purported boundary. Sam Harris (and followers like Susan Jacoby) would like to make a counter invasion, but they are wrong. ...more »

Who Needs Saving?

Wednesday, September 8th, 2010

It is disappointing to see a supposedly sophisticated voice of religion still so literalistic.
...more »

Back From the Future

Sunday, August 29th, 2010

An article in DISCOVER Magazine discusses an apparent influence of the decision to make later measurements on the results of earlier ones.

But then it turns out that the effect persists even when the later measurement is not recorded. Such cases are dismissed as experimental error, but perhaps it is just that the presence of the apparatus for the final measurement that causes the effect. Just as the half-silvered ends of a laser trap the photon between them, so perhaps do the apparati for initial and final measurement also trap the photon subjects of the Aharonov-Tollakson experiment.

Is there any significance in the fact that the article was originally printed in the April edition?

Who's a Dick?

Tuesday, August 24th, 2010

In his writings[1] Dick Feynman was never a dick (except perhaps in the eyes of those responsible for security during the Manhattan Project), and Dick Dawkins is not usually a dick but sometimes he comes close. I suspect that I am often a dick myself but I enjoy it too much to give it up completely. ...more »

Data Sharing Speeds Research

Monday, August 16th, 2010

An article in the NYTimes (coming to me via Michael Geist) reports progress in Alzheimer's research coming as a result of researchers adopting the principle of open data. ...more »