Archive for the ‘science’ Category

Do It Yourself

March 3, 2017 Leave a comment

I was going to post this comment as part of an anti-creationist rant but I realised that there was so much to it that I really needed to post it as a separate item. The issue I wanted to tackle was how many believers in mysticism base their beliefs on revealed sources, such as holy books, but the same criticism could be made against “rational” people, like myself, because I also use sources (such as science books, Wikipedia, etc).

So basically what I wanted to do was to show that anyone can discover significant things about the real world by themselves without relying on any information from existing sources, and that they can show anyone how to do the same observation/experiment which would prove their point beyond any reasonable doubt.

I decided to choose the age of the universe as a suitable subject, because it was a controversial subject (there are many young Earth creationists), and it was relatively easy to test. Of course, as I intimated above, it got more complex than I imagined. However, here is my proof – which anyone with a bit of time and a small budget can follow – that the universe, and therefore the Earth, is much older than the 6000 years the young Earth creationists claim.

I could start by trying to establish the age of the oldest things I know of. I could use biology, archaeology, chemistry or physics here, but I know a bit more about astronomy, so let’s use that.

We know the light from stars travels through space at the speed of light. If the stars are far enough away that the light took more than 6000 years to get here then the universe must be more than 6000 years old, so creationism is wrong. I know there are some possible objections to these initial assumptions but let’s leave those aside for now.

First, how fast is the speed of light? Can I figure this out for myself or do I need to take it on trust (some would say faith) from a book? Well it is actually quite easy to figure this out because we can use a highly regular event at a known distance to calculate the time it took for light to reach us. The most obvious choice is timings of Jupiter’s moons.

The moons of Jupiter (there are 4 big ones) take precise times to complete an orbit. I can figure that time out by just watching Jupiter for a few weeks. But we would expect a delay in the times because the light from an event (like a Moon going in front of or behind Jupiter) will take a while to reach us.

Conveniently, the distance from the Earth to Jupiter varies because some times the Earth and Jupiter are on the same side of the Sun, and others the opposite side. So when they are on the same side the distance from the Earth is the radius of Jupiter’s orbit minus the radius of the Earth’s, and when they are on opposite sides it is the radius of Jupiter’s orbit PLUS the radius of the Earth’s. Note that the size of Jupiters orbit doesn’t matter because the difference is just double the size of the Earth’s (in fact it is double the radius, or the diameter).

So now we need to know the size of the Earth’s orbit. How would we do that? There is a technique called parallax which requires no previous assumptions, it is just simple geometry. If you observe the position of an object from two locations the angle to the object will vary.

It’s simple to demonstrate… Hold your finger up in from of your eyes and look at it through one eye and then the other. The apparent position against a distant background wall will change. Move your finger closer and the change will be bigger. If you measure that change you can calculate the distance to your finger with some simple maths.

In astronomy we can do the same thing, except for distant objects the change is small… really small. And we also need two observing locations a large distance apart (the further apart they are, the bigger the change is and therefore the easier it is to measure). Either side of the Earth is OK for close objects, like the Moon (a mere 384000 kilometers away) but for stars (the closest is 42 trillion kilometers away) we need something more. Usually astronomers use the Earth on either side of its orbit (a distance of 300 million kilometers) so the two observations will be 6 months apart.

So getting back to our experiment. You might think we could measure the distance to a star, or a planet like Jupiter, or the Sun using this technique but it’s not quite so simple because the effect is so small. What we do instead is measure the distance to the Moon (which is close) using parallax from two widely separated parts on the Earth. I admit this needs a collaborator on the other side of the Earth, so it involves more than just one individual person, but the principle is the same.

Once we know that it can be used to measure other distances. For example, if we measure the angle between the Moon and Sun when the Earth-Moon-Sun angle is a right angle we can use trigonometry to get the distance to the Sun. It’s not easy because the angle is very close to 90 degrees (the Earth-Sun side of the triangle is much longer than the Earth-Moon side) but it can be done.

So now we know the difference in distance between the Earth and Jupiter in the two situations I mentioned at the start of this post. If we carefully measure the difference in time between the timings of Jupiter’s Moons from Earth when Earth is on either side of its orbit we get a difference of about 16 minutes. So light is taking half of that time to travel from the Sun to the Earth. We know that distance from the previous geometric calculations, so we know the speed of light.

Note that none of this is open to any reasonable criticism. It is simple, makes no assumptions which can fairly be questioned, and anyone can do it without relying on existing knowledge. Note that if you want to derive the basic trig calculations that is fairly easy too, but few people would argue about those.

So the Sun is 8 light minutes away meaning the light we see from the Sun left it 8 minutes ago. We are seeing the Sun literally as it was 8 minutes in the past. This means it must have existed 8 minutes in the past. But who cares? Well this is interesting but looking at more distant objects – those not just light minutes away but light years, thousands of light years, millions of light years away say more about the true age of the Universe.

So we can use this idea in reverse. Above we calculated a distance based on a time difference and the speed of light. Now we will calculate a time based on distance and the speed of light. If a star is 10,000 light years away the light left it 10,000 years ago, so it existed 10,000 years ago, so the universe is at least 10,000 years old.

There is only one direct method to calculate distance and that is parallax. But even from opposite sides of the Earth’s orbit – a baseline of 300 million kilometers – parallax angles are ridiculously small. But with a moderate size telescope (one which many amateurs could afford), and careful observation, they can be measured. The parallax angle of the closest star is about 800 milliarcseconds, or 0.01 degrees. That gives an angle which is the equivalent of the width of a small coin about 5 kilometers away.

Do this observation, then a simple calculation, and the nearest star turns out to be 40 trillion kilometers (4 light years) away. When we see that star we see it as it was 4 years ago. In that time the star could have gone out or been swallowed by a black hole (very unlikely) and we wouldn’t know.

The greatest distance so far detected using parallax is 10,000 light years, but that was with the Hubble Space Telescope, so that is beyond the direct experience of the average person! However note that using this direct, uncontroversial technique, the universe is already at least 10,000 years old, making young Earth creationism impossible.

Another rather obvious consequence of these distance measures is that stars are like our Sun. So if we know how bright stars are we can compare that with how bright they appear to be and get a distance approximation. If a star looks really dim it must be at a great distance. The problem is, of course, that stars vary greatly in brightness and we can’t assume they are all the same brightness as the Sun.

There is another feature of stars which even an amateur can make use of though – that is the spectrum. Examining the spectrum can show what type of star produced the light. The amateur observer can even calibrate his measurements using common chemicals in a lab. The chemicals in the star are the same and give the same signatures (approximately, at least).

So knowing the type of star gives an approximation of the brightness and that can be used to get the distance. The most distant star visible to the naked eye is 16,000 light years away. This would be bright enough to get a spectrum in a telescope, determine the type of star, and estimate the distance. Of course, it would be hit and miss trying to find a distant star to study (because we’re not supposed to use any information already published) but enough persistence would pay off eventually.

There are objects in the sky called globular clusters. These are collections of a few hundred thousand to a few million stars, quite close together. To the naked eye they look like a fuzzy patch but through a small telescope they can be seen to be made of individual stars. A simple calculation based on their apparent brightness shows they are tens of thousands of light years away. A similar technique can be applied to galaxies but these give distances of millions of light years.

In addition, an amateur with a fairly advanced telescope and the latest digital photography equipment – all of which is available at a price many people could afford – could do the investigation of red-shifts originally done by Edwin Hubble over 100 years ago.

A red shift is the shift in the spectrum of an object caused by its movement away from us. As I said above, the spectra of common chemicals can be tested in the lab and compared with the spectrum seen from astronomical objects. As objects get more distant they are found to be moving away more quickly and have higher red shifts. So looking at a red shift gives an approximate measure of distance.

This technique can only be used for really distant objects, like galaxies, so it is a bit more challenging for an amateur, but it will give results of millions to billions of light years, meaning the objects are at least millions or billions of years old.

There are some possible objections to everything I have discussed above. First, maybe the speed of light was much faster in the past meaning that the light could have travelled the vast distances in less time than assumed, meaning the universe could still be just 6000 years old.

Second, the light from the objects could have been created in transit. So a galaxy could have been created 2 million years ago but its light could also be created already travelled 99% of the way to the Earth.

Finally, maybe there is a supernatural explanation that cannot be explained through science or logic, or maybe all of the evidence above is just the malicious work of the devil trying to lead us all astray.

The second and third objections aren’t generally supported, even by most creationists, because they imply that nothing we see can be trusted, and God is not usually thought to be deliberately misleading.

The first one isn’t totally ridiculous though, and there is some serious science suggesting the speed of light might have been faster in the past. But do the calculations and that speed would have to be ridiculously fast – millions of times faster than it is now. If it was changing at that rate then we would see changes over recorded history. So that claim could also be checked by anyone who was prepared to dig into old sources for timings of eclipses, the length of the day, etc.

Astronomy is an interesting science because so much of it is still do-able by amateurs. Follow the steps above and not only will you get a perspective on some of the greatest work done in the past, but you will also make for yourself a truly fundamental discovery about the universe: that it is really old.

It requires no faith in authority, no reference to trusted texts, and no unfounded assumptions. It just involves a few years of dedicated observation and study. I admit I haven’t done all of this myself, but it’s good to know I could if I wanted to.

The Fermi Paradox Again

February 23, 2017 Leave a comment

NASA recently announced the discovery of 7 Earth-like planets orbiting the relatively close star, Trappist-1, and that 3 are in the “Goldilocks Zone” (not too hot, not too cold). It is now expected (at least I have heard this although I don’t think it is officially stated anywhere) that almost all stars have planets and that a significant fraction of them might have conditions similar to Earth.

This is significant because for many years no one knew how many planets existed in the universe (although there were some discoveries going back to 1988 it was only Kepler, HARPS, and some other new advanced telescopes more recently that lead to significant numbers of discoveries). So it was generally assumed that planets were common but there was no way of knowing.

Another great mystery of the universe is how likely is life to arise and under what conditions. Here we are even worse off than with the planets because we are literally working with a sample size of 1. No other life has been discovered outside of the Earth, although there have been some interesting discoveries on Mars, none have lead to any proof of even primitive life.

It is generally assumed that life will have to be broadly similar to what we have here on Earth. I don’t mean similar in any superficial sense but in broad principles. So it will be based on carbon, because carbon is the only element in the universe which bonds to other atoms (and itself) with sufficient complexity to form molecules suitable to base life on. We also know that the elements we know about are the only ones which can exist in the universe.

The chemistry of life also requires a solvent, and water is the obvious choice. So these chemical requirements limit the temperature and other factors that life would need, which is why we are so interested in “Earth-like” planets which are big enough to have strong gravity, are the right temperature to allow liquid water, and have solid surfaces allowing water to pool and to provide the other elements that life might need.

Note that it is possible that life might be able to exist in a wider variety of conditions but I’ll stick to these, fairly conservative, assumptions.

Even when all the conditions are just right, or within certain limits, it’s hard to know how often life might arise. Experiments in the lab and some observations of molecules in space indicate it might be really likely, but the failure to find life on Mars seems to contradict this.

But even if there was only one chance in a billion of life arising if conditions were suitable, that still means these should be a lot of it in our galaxy alone, and a lot more in the universe as a whole.

There are about half a trillion stars in our galaxy (although this number has gone up and down a bit, the latest number I heard was at this high end) and each star seems to have multiple planets (let’s say 10 as an approximation) and it’s likely that at least one might be in the correct temperature zone (some stars might have none in this zone but other, like Trappist-1, have many). This seems to indicate that there are as many Earth-like planets as there are stars.

A recent Hubble survey indicated there might be 2 trillion galaxies in the observable universe. So we have 2 trillion galaxies x 500 billion stars x 10 planets x 1/10 Earth-like, giving one trillion trillion places where life might evolve in the observable universe.

These numbers could be off by many orders of magnitude but who cares? Even if we are a billion times too optimistic that still means a thousand trillion places!

I have talked about the Fermi Paradox – the fact that according to best calculations there should be a lot of advanced life around, yet we never see it – in previous blog posts so I won’t go into that again here except to say we aren’t much further ahead in resolving it!

There is hope though. As telescope technology advances there will be techniques available which seemed impossible in the past. Detecting a planet orbiting another star is an incredible achievement in itself (the stars are really big and bright but at the distances of other stars the planets are very dim and small). But it should be possible to actually study their atmospheres in the future by analysing the light shining through the atmosphere from the star.

In that case it should be possible to learn a lot more about conditions on the planet (temperature, pressure, what elements are present, etc) and to even detect the chemical signatures of life.

And there are even serious proposals now to design small, robotic spacecraft which can be sent to close stars in a reasonable time (by reasonable here we mean decades rather than tens of thousands of years needed by current spacecraft). We know the closest star, a mere 4.2 light years (42 trillion kilometers) away, has a planet but it is unlikely to be suitable for life, but other relatively close stars could also be explored this way.

So how long will it be before we know that life exists on other planets? I predict hints of its existence within 10 years, strong evidence within 30, and proof within 50. And at that point, depending on the circumstances, it should be obvious just how likely life is. I predict we will start finding evidence for it everywhere.

But I still can’t get past the problem presented by the Fermi Paradox. If life arises frequently, why don’t we see signs of advanced, intelligent life? Maybe intelligence isn’t a good evolutionary trait. And, especially given the state of the world at the moment, that is a worrying thought.

I Demand My Moon Base!

July 13, 2016 Leave a comment

Our species has a lot to be proud of, right? Well yes, in a way that is true, but there are many places where we could do so much better too. For me, one of the more depressing areas is the failure to push the boundaries of exploration, to get out there, to take risks, to move forward.

This has happened in many places but I guess the most obvious example is in the space program. The last Apollo mission was Apollo 17 which landed in 1972. Since then no human has travelled beyond low Earth orbit. And since the demise of the Shuttle the leading space exploration nation hasn’t had the capability to do that even if it wanted to.

So what’s stopping progress in this, and many other areas? The most obvious answer is that the money isn’t there, but as is always the case this simply isn’t true. There’s piles of money around and the capability to resume a serious space program could easily be achieved. We could easily have had a Moon colony by now, for example.

In fact I recently read an article in “Futurism” magazine on this exact subject. Futurism is a magazine whose mission is “…to empower our readers and drive the development of transformative technologies towards maximizing human potential”. Sounds like a great aim and I found most of the material there quite interesting, although a little bit optimistic regarding technology.

Of course, I also believe technology (and not politics, religion, or business) is the answer to most of our problems and the underlying source of most of the positive benefits of modern society, so they are preaching to the converted there!

But to get back to the practicality and costs of building a Moon base. Futurism estimates the cost at $10 billion and that it could be done by 2022. Is that a lot of money? Well it’s less than the cost of just one new aircraft carrier.

I wonder what proportion of the US population would be prepared to sacrifice just one carrier to get a Moon base. I really hope it would be most of them, or I would have to conclude that the country really has gone further down the path to self-destruction than I thought.

Let’s look at the total US budget for 2015. The country spent $637 billion on defence out of a total spend of $3.97 trillion. This equates to 16% of the total – the only two higher categories were healthcare at 25% and social security at 24%. NASA’s budget was $18 billion (just 2% of the military’s or 0.5% of the total – the lowest it has been since NASA was created).

How much does that equate to as part of the total? Well, if you had a salary of $50,000 then 0.5% is 250 dollars – about what someone might spend on a moderately expensive family dinner at a restaurant. It doesn’t really seem like a lot, does it?

But what about the argument over what the space program contributes to society? Well, there are three ways it contributes: direct beenfits like communications satellites; indirect but objective benefits like new technologies created while the program was being developed; and more subjective benefits which exist just because exploration and pushing the boundaries is inherently a good thing.

But that aside, we could make the same argument about the military, or social security, or health not contributing in an obvious way. From a conventional accounting perspective it’s probably hard to justify those as well.

Perhaps the strangest thing is that it is often the more conservative members of society who want to “make America great again” who question the value of scientific programs but who fail to realise that it is exactly those programs which did make America great.

Another factor which might be holding up progress on space exploration is risk aversion. NASA has become extremely careful about balancing risk against moving forward. The Shuttle accidents didn’t help of course, but space exploration is just hard and there will always be accidents. Some degree of caution is necessary but it shouldn’t lead to a virtual paralysis.

Then there is the idea from some groups in society that science cannot be trusted, that it is out of favour in some way, and that it has an agenda contrary to it’s stated one of establishing the truth about the natural world.

Some people reject evolution, some think climate change is a conspiracy, some think vaccinations cause autism, and others believe the Moon landings were a hoax. These are all totally irrational ideas but they all contribute to an acceptance of lower investment in science.

Finally there is the neoliberal dogma that free markets and profit-driven activities are always best. These people think that business generates all the benefits in society and that science is just a parasite on that.

But I would say that the opposite is true: business is a parasite on science and technology. For example, many companies (Google, Facebook, etc) make a lot of money from using the internet but the internet only exists because of military and scientific research organisations. The internet originated at DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, run by the US military) and the web began at CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research). So who is really exploiting the hard work and original ideas of others?

I’m not saying the military shouldn’t be funded at all, although I hope there will be a time in the (perhaps distant) future when militaries are no longer necessary. What I am saying is that it wouldn’t really hurt to spend a bit less on aircraft carriers and failed jet fighter projects and a little bit more on space exploration.

And yes, I demand my Moon base!

Bordering on Impossible

May 7, 2016 Leave a comment

I have mentioned my admiration for the LIGO project before but since then it has actually achieved its goal so now might be a good time to discuss it again.

First, what is it? Well if you haven’t heard the news (if you haven’t you obviously don’t follow science news at all) and haven’t read my previous post on LIGO (titled “Ripples in Space-Time” from 2015-11-10) here’s a brief summary…

LIGO is an experiment designed to detect gravity waves.

It consists of two detectors – one in Washington and one in Louisiana – which consist of two 4 kilometer long tubes, containing a high vacuum, at right angles to each other. A precision laser shines down the each tube and is reflected back to the central point.

If a gravity wave hits the experiment it warps the detectors (to be precise it warps the space-time the detectors occupy) very slightly and that can be measured by changes in the light beam, specifically by how the two beams interact. When there is no gravitational warping the two beams are in phase but if one is warped the beams interfere.

The reason there are two detectors (each with 2 lasers) rather than one is that local effects (traffic, small earthquakes, etc) can affect them far more than gravity, but these will only affect the nearby detector. Gravity waves will affect both (with a tiny interval of time between them).

It sounds simple but the complicating factor is the size of the effect. Imagine trying to measure the size of something to a precision of one part in one hundred million trillion. That precision can never be imagined in relation to normal size objects so let’s compare it to the whole planet Earth.

The Earth is about 13,000 kilometers in diameter so to measure it with the same precision the measurement would need to be accurate to 0.00000000013 of a millimeter. If a single grain of sand interfered with that attempted measurement it would distort the measurement by a factor of 8 billion times too much. In other words, the precision is equivalent to measuring the width of the Earth accurate to one 8 billionth the width of a grain of sand.

A good phrase to describe the staggering difficulty of this task was “bordering on impossible”. In fact, many people thought it really was impossible. But it wasn’t. Because gravity waves were actually discovered at LIGO near the end of last year and officially announced earlier this year.

And there are a few interesting details of the discovery which make it even more incredible. Here’s an overview of some of them…

The gravity waves which were detected were created in an event where two large black holes, each 20 to 30 times the mass of our Sun, merged. This happened 1.3 billion light years away which means it happened a billion years ago and the waves had taken that long to get here. The event was translated into a sound which has been described as a “chirp”. It lasted just 0.2 of a second.

The detectors had been upgraded and had just been switched on again. An scientist in Germany first saw the signal and thought it might just be a test because there had been extensive testing of the new system up until then. But he soon found it wasn’t and the timing of the event in the two facilities clearly showed a real gravity wave which could even be isolated to a line through the sky. The collision happened somewhere along that line.

If a third detector had been available the position could have been deduced by triangulation but unfortunately a third device in Europe which might have been used was being maintained. But hey, you win some and you lose some, and finding the event at all so quickly after an upgrade was a big win in itself. After all, massive black holes don’t collide that often!

So what does it mean?

Well the observation finally confirms a prediction of Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity which was published exactly 100 years prior to the confirming observation. Of course, many other aspects of the theory have already been confirmed but gravity waves were one of the few that hadn’t. Relativity really is a remarkable theory and its predictive ability has never failed.

Gravity waves now allow astronomers to look at the universe in a whole new way. Instead of using electromagnetic radiation (light, radio waves, x-rays, microwaves, gamma waves) some super-energetic events can be observed using their gravity radiation.

And the confirmation of Relativity further strengthens its role as one of the core theories in physics. It is a theory related to the most basic levels of reality so there are few obvious practical benefits, but fundamental theories are what everthing in our modern, technological society are based on, so their importance cannot be overstated.

And like all great technical achievements which push the extreme boundaries of technology (the space program being the most obvious) there will be spin-offs from the actual construction of the facilities which will be used in diverse areas of technology in the future.

So yes, LIGO is an astonishing technological tour de force – on a similar level to the LHC, the Apollo program, and the Hubble Space telescope – something that every human on the planet should be truly proud of.

Ripples in Space-Time

November 9, 2015 Leave a comment

Different people have different opinions on what are the most extreme and audacious activities our civilisation is involved in. Some think it is courageous and risky ventures in the business world, some think it is the production of great art, and some think it is impressive engineering projects.

I tend to admire our efforts at great scientific achievements most. In the past I have blogged about the Large Hadron Collider which I think is arguably our greatest scientific project ever (note that the engineering world shares substantially in this achievement) and this time I want to talk about another large scale project which also makes measurements with (literally) unbelievably exquisite precision.

The project is called LIGO, which stands for “Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory”. As the name suggests, this is an instrument (in fact 2, situated in Louisiana and Washington, USA) designed to measure gravity waves, and there are several other similar installations trying to do the same thing in other locations around the world.

The LIGO observatory consists of two tunnels in high vacuum, each 4 kilometers long and at right angles to each other. A laser is split and directed down the two arms and then reflected back with mirrors. As the two beams arrive back they interfere with each other and this can be used to measure the lengths of the two arms very precisely.

Why would they want to do this? Well, Einstein’s Theory of Relativity predicts the existence of gravity waves which are “ripples” in space-time which travel out (at the speed of light) from events where mass changes configuration. The problem is that these waves are weak. Very weak. Even a massive catastrophic event like a star collapse only generates very small waves.

To detect these waves as they reach Earth it is necessary to measure how time and space is warped. Depending on the location of the source one arm of the tunnel at LIGO would be warped one way (it might get longer) and the other would be warped the opposite way (it would get shorter).

So that seems simple enough but the problem is how much the length changes. The effect which is trying to be measured is just one thousand trillionth of a meter over the 8000 meter journey of the laser. That’s like measuring the distance around the Earth accurate to about one 10 billionth the width of a single hair.

Here are two other ways to visualise the tiny size of the distortion: a 1 km ring would deform no more than a one thousandth the size of an atomic nucleus; and it’s like measuring the distance from the Earth to the Sun to the accuracy of the size of a hydrogen atom.

When I first read these numbers I thought I had misinterpreted them because it’s almost impossible to believe that anything can be capable of such an astonishing feat of precision. But it’s true according to several different sources.

Apart from simply how small the measurement is here are many factors which have to be considered. Even the tiny vibrations caused by traffic on distant roads is much greater than the distortion caused by gravity waves, for example. But this problem can be overcome. First, the two tunnels at right angles would warp in a particular way specific to the effects of gravity waves. Also, the two installations thousands of kilometers apart would both detect the gravity waves but would be affected differently by local noise.

So if one LIGO detected an event but the other didn’t it would be assumed that it was due to local noise. But if both detected compatible events then a gravity wave is the best candidate for the cause. In addition, by timing when the event reached each observatory the direction the wave came from can be investigated.

For example, if the wave hit the Louisiana observatory before Washington then the event would have come from that direction. Of course, moving at the speed of light, the difference in time is small (a maximum of 10 milliseconds), but that’s easy to measure compared with the other stuff being done there.

Finally I have to answer the obvious question: so what, who cares about gravity waves, and what practical purpose do they have? This is the question scientists hate, for two reasons: first, the pursuit of knowledge in itself is sufficient justification for this work; and second, discoveries which seem purely theoretical almost always have practical benefits later.

So the billions being spent on this should not be thought of as a waste of time and money, or as just a pet project for boffins, or as an expensive exercise in gaining theoretical and useless esoteric data. It should be seen as a way to learn more about the most basic attributes of the universe; of potentially gathering knowledge which can be used in future technology; and most importantly of all, as a way to do something which is just really cool!

Do These Make Sense?

August 8, 2015 Leave a comment

I am currently reading a book (or, more accurately, listening to an audiobook) called “13 Things That Don’t Make Sense” by science writer, Michael Brooks (the book has quite a lot of overlap with a list made by New Scientist which I blogged about in 2006). As the title suggests, it discusses several phenomena which don’t seem to fit in with the current scientific understanding and I agree with his conclusions to varying degrees.

The author’s overall tone seems to suggest that he thinks that science is too conservative and too reluctant to accept new ideas and therefore is missing out on a lot of potential new discoveries, and that there is a conscious effort to repress new ideas which don’t fit in with the scientific orthodoxy.

But is he right?

Well those points do have a certain amount of truth to them but I think he significantly overstates one side of the argument, either because he just wants to make the cases he chose to cover in his book more interesting, or because he really doesn’t understand the scientific process that well.

There is also the fact that when criticising science we need to say exactly what it is we are talking about. There is no accepted definition of what science is, for a start, and even if there was, all pure science is contaminated by politics, management, and commerce. Do we criticise science the way it should be or the way it is?

Since I criticise religion, democracy, and capitalism for what they are rather than what they should be in some idealised world, I really should apply the same rules to science. So yes, there are huge problems in the way that science is actually done and I’m sure that if it was allowed to progress in a “pure” form the world would be a much better place. But that is about as likely as religion or anything else proceeding in a pure form – approximately zero – so I will discuss what is, not what should be.

All of these points aside, the book (at least so far, because I am less than half way through) does over-state scientific resistance to change just to make its point. One subject, for example – the Pioneer Anomaly – has since been perfectly explained in simple, conventional terms which the book rejected or at least minimised. Note that the book was published 2008, and the anomaly was explained 2012.

That doesn’t mean that the other phenomena will also be explained without making major changes to current scientific theories and it doesn’t mean that science isn’t too resistant to new ideas either, but it does mean that we shouldn’t try to explain something caused by something simple by creating a new fundamental theory (in this case conventional thermal effects were the explanation and a new theory of gravity was unnecessary).

Conservatism is part of science because it’s more effective to only change theories when the evidence is really strong rather than to pursue potentially false lines of evidence and then have to backtrack if that doesn’t work out.

So that’s the big picture. To finish this post I will quickly discuss some of the other things which “don’t make sense” and how seriously I take them…

The missing universe (dark matter and dark energy). Well yes, it is a well-known source of embarrassment that science doesn’t really understand the nature of over 95% of the mass/energy of the universe. But at least the issue is being investigated and several possible explanations are available.

There’s nothing that really “doesn’t make sense” here – it’s more a matter of which of several possible answers is correct (if any because maybe there’s another one not considered yet, although that is unlikely).

Varying constants. The author makes it seem like scientists are so ideologically opposed to varying constants and/or physical laws that they won’t even contemplate the possibility. This is far from the truth. The idea is openly discussed by many physicists and the evidence is taken quite seriously (especially when considering the fine-structure constant).

But I do agree that constants (which as the name suggests are supposed to stay the same) changing over time or space does significantly change our approach to cosmology (in particular).

Cold fusion. This is a fascinating subject because it is such a mix of science, engineering, politics, and reporting. The original experimenters were forced by their university to release their findings in an unnecessarily sensational way. Many attempts at replication failed but others seemed to show positive results. Science politics intervened and generally discredited the whole field. Research has continued since and we still only have negative and inconsistent positive results.

I do have to say that it would be great if cold fusion was real but generally in these situations (when consistent results aren’t produced from apparently identical scientific setups) there is some anomaly or error in the experiment. That is far from certain though and I think further research is quite justified, especially considering the slow progress with hot fusion!

The other topics on the book’s list are: life, the Viking experiments, the Wow! signal, a giant virus, death, sex, free will, the placebo effect, and homeopathy.

It’s certainly a fascinating mix and I look forward to hearing the rest. Looking at the list I predict there is nothing too extraordinary in many of them but I will reserve judgement until I hear the arguments. I think another blog post will be called for at that time!

But is it Science?

January 23, 2015 Leave a comment

This year marks a hundred years since Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity was released. It was his second theory of the type, the Special Theory was presented to the world ten years earlier. The other great area of science Einstein worked on was quantum physics and he actually gained his Nobel Prize in this area rather than Relativity which he is better known for.

After 1915 Einstein started work on integrating those two great theories of physics but, like everyone else, he failed to come up with a solution. So even now a hundred years later physicists are still trying to come up with a “theory of everything”.

But there are some candidates and the most prominent is String Theory. This theory posits the existence of one dimensional strings in 11 dimensional space. That sounds fairly obscure, perhaps even totally crazy, I mean what actually is 11 dimensional space anyway? But as the great physicist Niels Bohr (allegedly) said: Your theory is crazy, but not crazy enough to be true. Still, that is a rather trite response. The question is, is there any reality in String Theory.

One rather derogatory description of String Theory is that it is “not even wrong” meaning that it cannot be tested so it can’t be said to be right or wrong. In many ways, showing that it is wrong would be preferable because then physicist could move on to other possibilities.

But although it is difficult (some say impossible) to test in the real world, String Theory is so beautiful from a mathematical, abstract perspective (at least according to maths experts) that it is difficult to ignore. So now some theoretical physicists want to re-define science, and that’s where things get interesting…

They say that some areas of research deal with abstractions and maths which are difficult to test in the real world. And they might never be able to test some ideas, such as String Theory and the Multiverse. But they don’t care, and argue that a theory being elegant and explanatory is as important as it being testable.

Needless to say old school physicists are alarmed at this because they think that it undermines science. I would have to say that my initial reaction was to agree. But untestable theories often become testable and there are numerous examples of this in the past. And if theories are elegant and explanatory I think they still have value.

Testability has been an important attribute of science (although not quite an absolute requirement as some people like to suggest) especially since the work of philosopher Karl Popper (who worked here in New Zealand during WW2) so we shouldn’t ignore it. On the other hand, science had been proceeding for many years before Popper’s analysis and limiting it to one methodology seems unnecessary.

Maybe another suggestion made by these theorists might be preferable, that is to call this type of research something else. Maybe it is pure maths, or mathematical theoretical cosmology. Maths isn’t really science because it is not tested in the real world in the same way as science is, so maybe we should say that string theory and other speculative theories should be thought of more as maths or philosophy than science.

But in the end who cares? These are just labels and there is always overlap between areas of human endeavour anyway. There are examples of highly theoretical maths which has turned out to be useful. And we should never forget the famous concept: the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in the natural sciences (initially from an article published in 1960 by the physicist Eugene Wigner). For some reason maths seems to describe the real world. There doesn’t seem to be any good reason why, but it’s true.

And the concept of beauty in maths is well known. I think the best expression of this might be by one of my favourite philosophers, Bertrand Russell, who said “Mathematics, rightly viewed, possesses not only truth, but supreme beauty – a beauty cold and austere, like that of sculpture, without appeal to any part of our weaker nature, without the gorgeous trappings of painting or music, yet sublimely pure, and capable of a stern perfection such as only the greatest art can show. The true spirit of delight, the exaltation, the sense of being more than Man, which is the touchstone of the highest excellence, is to be found in mathematics as surely as in poetry.”

So yes, let the abstract theories continue. Let’s not worry too much about practicality or unnecessarily limited definitions of science. Let’s pursue these ideas for their own sake. But if anyone can think of a way to test them that would be great!