Friday, April 29, 2005
Speaking of which
Atrios is right: this is an excellent article by Fareed Zakaria on the wet martini.
Friday random ten: nunc est bibendum edition
Thursday, April 28, 2005
Teaching the Bible
News out of Odessa, Texas, is that they want to start teaching the Bible as "history/literature" in high schools. (See Salon, via Media Girl guest blogging at Rox Populi, and see also Lorraine's diary at Daily Kos -- ain't the internet grand?)
Now, in the real world, this is just a thinly-disguised attempt to teach Christianity in the public schools, and will doubtless run into all sorts of First Amendment troubles. But let's indulge for a moment in fantasy-world, where words actually mean what they appear to mean. The history of the Bible is a fascinating and informative story. You can read for example Richard Friedman's Who Wrote the Bible? and The Bible With Sources Revealed. These books will explain how the Pentateuch was not written by Moses, but rather assembled by editors from a set of several pre-existing texts by different authors -- J (who refers to God as "Yahweh"), E (who uses "Elohim"), P (the priestly author), and D (who wrote Deuteronomy). This understanding will be very useful, as it explains (for example) why the beginning chapters of Genesis include two completely separate, and mutually incompatible, creation narratives. The students should probably also read something like Karen Armstrong's A History of God, so they can learn how the early Hebrews were not actually monotheistic, and how Yahweh evolved from one god among many (in charge of storms and battle) to the only deity in the pantheon. This will help them understand, for example, why in Psalm 82 God is found talking to a bunch of other gods.
Of course, there are some interesting side effects of such knowledge. When Shadi Bartsch and I taught our course Moments in Atheism last year, students in the class came from a wide range of backgrounds and religious beliefs, which we found to be no hindrance when talking about Aquinas's proofs for the existence of God or Hume's objections to the argument from design. There was only one part of the course that seemed to bother some people -- the honest history of the Bible. It certainly wasn't our intention to bother anyone, and many of the leading scholars of biblical history are religious themselves. But it seems to be the case that simply talking about the true history of religious practice can cause people to question their beliefs in a way that philosophical debate never will. Of course, I would argue that the real goal isn't to cause people to question their religious beliefs -- it's to train people to think critically and rationally about whatever sets of preconceptions they may have, and evaluate them according to standards of reason and evidence. If we can do that by talking about the history of the Bible, then why not?
But sadly the real world doesn't quite work like that, and I don't imagine that the course I have in mind is the one being planned in Odessa. It's the same issue that PZ Myers talks about in the context of evolution and creationism. "Teaching the controversy," as creationists like to encourage us to do, is a great idea, if you actually do it. By comparing the standards of argument of creationists to those of real scientists, students can both learn a lot about biology and about how to be independent critical thinkers. This is of course not what is intended by the creationists.
The upshot is: when we really "teach the controversy," we win. How do we guarantee that "really"?
Why not the Feynman lectures?
Okay, this is truly funny. From Not Even Wrong, Princeton professors stage "filibuster" against the anti-filibuster machinations of alumus Bill Frist. Two of the filibusterers are physicists Chiara Nappi and Ed Witten, the latter of whom regaled the crowd by reading selections from Griffith's Introduction to Elementary Particles. Couldn't he have just given an introductory lecture on twistors and string theory?
As discussed in some earlier comments, it's worth asking why physicists still bother flying around and giving talks, since we could easily just record a single example of each talk and make it available on the web for perusal at one's leisure. Of course, we could say the same thing about, for example, any class you take at school -- why bother with live teachers, when we could just play a video of some classic lectures? And why go to concerts if we can listen to recordings of some previous live performance? Or why bother meeting friends for a drink, when we can drink at home while sending email back and forth?
Enough sarcasm -- it's actually a good question, but to me it's clear that the opportunities for direct interaction make all the traveling quite worthwhile. Still, you can't always get everyone interesting to come give a talk, which is why it's extremely useful to have talks online. With that in mind, here is my recent talk on "Why is the universe accelerating?" in various formats -- html slides, pdf slides, and an actual video (some of me, but mostly of slides). The video is from the talk at Goddard Space Flight Center, which was marred by a computer glitch, so some of the graphics are missing.
I hope everyone understands what a style-cramping thing it is to give away talks online. Of course people who give a lot of talks will use basically the same slides over and over -- no reason not to, if the new audience hasn't yet heard the talk. More importantly, though, one tends to use the same jokes over and over, usually with some confidence that they're new to this audience. Now that the whole internet can hear my talks ahead of time, does this mean I have to come up with new jokes?
Wednesday, April 27, 2005
Capricious squirming turgid universe
As poetry month screeches to a conclusion, we present a special treat: a poem (if it deserves the designation) actually written by me. This is a sonnet constructed from the magnetic poetry kits on my refrigerator years ago, which I found simply too priceless to allow to slide into oblivion. You might think that some of these words aren't part of the standard magnetic-poetry collection, but I had the pretentious pedant expander kit (naturally).
I listen morning unrequited darkOkay, so I was a bit too slavishly iambic, but happily made little attempt to rhyme. Enjoy it, this won't be a regular feature.
Tuesday, April 26, 2005
Mark gets one of the most amusing grant-program notices ever.
The Institute for Research on Unlimited Love - Altruism, Compassion, Service (http://www.unlimitedloveinstitute.org/), which was established through a grant from the John Templeton Foundation (http://www.templeton.org/), has announced "Unto Others: Scientific and Religious Perspectives on the Love of Neighbor," a course competition for secondary school faculty.I don't want to be on record as coming out against unlimited love, but -- would it be cynical of me to think that, as goals go, this one is perhaps a little vague and unrealistic? The Templeton folks are just throwing money right and left, though. I got a notice myself, but it was only for lunch, not for unlimited love.
The John Templeton Foundation Brown Bag Lunch ProgramThey've mastered the art of proposing things that seemingly nobody can disagree with. Who would be against the creation of space "for the discussion of broad, interdisciplinary, and timely themes relating to questions of human significance"? But as Mark says, it's all part of the bigger agenda of lending respectability to religion through an apparent affiliation with science.
Usually cosmologists don't have to work very hard to avoid temptation, since nobody considers us important enough to warrant corruption. It's nice to feel wanted.
I could have taken some time today to blog about my lovely visit here in Los Angeles, during which I have enjoyed the gracious hospitality of Samantha Butler and Clifford Johnson (frequent Preposterous commenters, not to mention highly accomplished scientists), and where we were joined last night for dinner by Marc Kamionkowski (also an accomplished scientists, but not [so far as I know] a commenter, although now that Lawrence Krauss is leaving comments perhaps we should encourage all the famous cosmologists to do so). I didn't take the time because I spent the day in pleasant conversation with various USC physicists, up to and including a nice dinner after my talk. At that point a responsible blogger would have spared a moment to recount the day's stories, but instead I took advantage of my visit to LA to go play some poker at the Commerce Casino.
Commerce is one of those many municipalities that is spiritually part of LA, but politically a separate entity. Playing cards for money is apparently legal in some of these places, although I don't think that other forms of casino gambling are. The Commerce, at any rate, is one of the biggest card rooms in the world; I counted about fifty active tables of Hold'em alone at midnight on a Monday.
I played a fairly low-limit game ($3-$6) for a few hours. At this point I should regale you with tales of how my shrewd poker skills won me pot after pot from the bedazzled locals, but alas these aforementioned skills were not much in evidence. It was one of those frustrating games where it was hard to do well because there were a substantial number of unpredictable (read: bad) players at the table. You could have great cards yourself, but inevitably four or five people would call you down to the river and someone would hit a straight or flush at the end. At least four or five times someone had pocket aces, and I don't think they won once. In such circumstances you have to take multiple flyers on long-shot drawing hands, hoping to rake in huge pots once in a while. After substantial swings on either side of the ledger, I ended the night down by a net total of nine bucks.
I've always (in my limited experience) found poker players at casinos to be engaging and chatty people, except for the occasional loose cannon. We had one tonight, a young guy who suffered a bad beat early on and sat there for another ten hands cursing loudly about how we were all amateurs and he couldn't stand playing with such losers. I wanted to politely ask why he didn't simply adjust his devastating game and take us all to the cleaners, but I'm pretty sure he would have turned around and hit me. Then my chips would have scattered everywhere, and it would have been a mess. Not worth the drama.
Sunday, April 24, 2005
Next to dirtiness
The latest Carnival of the Godless is up at Timothy Sandefur's blog, collecting recent blog entries from a god-free perspective. Timothy is a self-described Objectivist, free-market, capitalist pig lawyer, thus proving that atheism is inded a Big Tent.
Saturday, April 23, 2005
For the last couple of weeks, Chicago has been enjoying marvelous spring-like weather. Now that it is deep into spring, they are predicting snow for this weekend. Good timing for me, as I am off to LA to give a colloquium at USC on Monday.
The weather was quite nice at the APS meeting last week in Tampa. Here's an exciting action photo of some of the best and brightest of our nation's young cosmologists, hard at work investigating the secrets of the universe.
L to R: Uros Seljak, Arthur Kosowsky, Hiranya Peiris, Rachel Bean, Mark Trodden, Arielle Phillips, Bhuvnesh Jain. Mark has a more substantive report on the conference (also here).
Which reminds me that Lawrence Krauss is stalking me. Not only did he give about twenty talks at the APS meeting, and not only did we bump into him at the restaurant we went to while escaping the throngs of physicists, but he was also at Notre Dame, giving a public talk on the cosmological constant the very evening after our conference in honor of Father McMullin. (And his name is even popping up in the blogs I read.) A couple of us tried to go to Lawrence's talk, but problems getting his Mac to communicate with the projector meant that he started about 45 minutes late. We had to bug out early, or run the risk of missing the free food and wine at the conference dinner. So Lawrence, if you're reading this, it wasn't that we weren't fascinated.
Friday, April 22, 2005
Halting the march of secularization
The Catholic Church does not allow women to be priests, bishops, cardinals, or Pope. Precisely because this fact is so familiar, it's easy to lose sight of how bizarre and retrograde it really is. Only two countries in the world prohibit women from voting and holding office -- Saudi Arabia and Kuwait -- and that might be changing. The only reason the Church can even imagine getting away with its overt sexism is that it's a religion, and gets instructions from God. (In particular, the Holy Spirit, who seems to be the messenger in these matters.) This is why the factual incorrectness of the religious view of the universe is not simply a matter of empty metaphysics: it leads directly to a warrant for nonsensical ethical claims.
It's taken hundreds of years of struggle, but Western society has been gradually improving its stance toward women and sexuality ever since the Enlightenment. It's on these issues -- women priests, abortion, birth control, homosexuality -- where the differences between the Church and secular Europeans and Americans are most pronounced. And if anyone doesn't believe that these differences aren't a major factor in the decline in the numbers (and activity) of Catholics in Europe and North America, they're fooling themselves.
So what does the Church do? Elects it's most visible advocate of hard-line retrenchment on these issues as Pope. There could be some logic there; if the cardinals think that compromise on issues of sexuality is simply morally wrong, they could think it wise to make their position as explicit as possible. But then you get things like this (via Crooked Timber):
These sessions were also covered by an oath of secrecy. But several cardinals made clear on Wednesday that the march of secularization across Western Europe was the number one problem on their minds, and that Ratzinger seemed to be part of the solution.That seems to be the exact opposite of the truth. Charging forward with condemnations of homosexuality and abortion will not -- I'm going out on a limb here -- revitalize Christianity in affluent, secular cultures. If that's what Pope Benedict thinks, his understanding of Western society needs an upgrade.
The latest brilliant idea
One obvious side-effect of the decline of high-energy physics in the U.S. is that we will be attracting fewer talented scientists from outside the country. But why limit ourselves to such indirect measures? Now the Department of Commerce wants to make it much more difficult for foreigners to get research done in the U.S. The idea is to require a special license for each foreign national who will be doing research with an "export controlled instrument" -- a vague category that depends on what country you're from, but might include things like powerful computers. So if your Chinese grad student wants to use a supercomputer to model the growth of structure in a cosmological simulation, they will have to wait until a license comes through, which will probably take a few months.
Here's an email from Judy Franz, Executive Officer of the American Physical Society, to physics department chairs (of which I am not one, but it's being forwarded around). This change would make many foreign students and visiting scientists into second-class citizens, and further diminish the reasons anyone might have to come to the U.S. to do research.
Date: Fri, 22 Apr 2005 08:53:07 -0400
Friday Random Ten: blue edition
First ten songs that come up on the iPod.
Thursday, April 21, 2005
The once and future Einstein
You have no idea how shocked we professional physicists were when one of our own was named Person of the Century by Time magazine. Of course, it was Einstein, who is something of a unique figure. Now we are celebrating the World Year of Physics in honor of the centenary of Einstein's Miraculous Year in 1905, when he wrote a handful of papers that turned the world of physics upside down.
Alan Boyle has written an enjoyable overview of what Einstein accomplished, and what it means for us today, over at MSNBC. By "enjoyable" I mean "quotes me a lot." At first I couldn't remember ever actually being interviewed by Alan, but then I remembered the press conference at the AAAS meeting, which I think is where these nuggets of rich wisdom were mined. (It has been suggested that I use this blog as a forum for puffing myself up. And?)
Another fun article by Alan is on Einstein's successors, specifically that an increasing number of them are women. Anecdotal evidence and individual stories don't prove anything, of course, but it's nice to see talented people overcoming the obstacles that are strewn in their way.
Update: In the original version of this post, I remarked on how female physicists tended to be more attractive than their male counterparts. It's been pointed out that discussions of this sort can serve to undermine women's status as talented scientists. Which is, of course, true. My hope was to be sufficiently clear that I meant to do nothing of the sort, and that we needn't be so deadly earnest all the time. But perhaps such nuance is impossible to convey in this kind of medium, or perhaps just impossible period, or perhaps the intentions are not the point. So either I am being pilloried on the basis of an ungenerous misreading, or I am unwittingly contributing to a very real problem. In either case, not what I intended, and it's better not to run the risk of exacerbating the obstacles women face in this field.
Now, of course, reactionaries will accuse me of buckling under to the pressure of political correctness. But that I don't mind at all. Henceforth I'll just stick to less controversial topics, like basketball and religion.
By Charles Simic. (It's still poetry month, you know. And I'm still on the road. And I'm working on corrections for a new printing.)
Where it says snow
Tuesday, April 19, 2005
I thought he looked familiar
This morning I drove from Chicago to Notre Dame to give a seminar and to speak tomorrow at a conference in honor of Ernan McMullin. He is a widely respected philosopher of science, and was the PhD advisor of Jack Doody, who taught me philosophy at Villanova.
So I stop at a fast-food place on I-90 along the way, and there's a TV showing white smoke and pealing bells. I stuck around a little to see who would be the new Pope, but eventually had to get going before he was revealed. Of course now we know who it is.
"Ratzinger is a polarizing figure to many, who seems to prefer combativeness to compromise and compassion," Mary Grant of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests said in a statement.My goodness. They've elected Larry Summers as Pope.
Monday, April 18, 2005
Purity of essence
A little morality tale, in which our hero resists the lure of easy money and emerges with his self-respect somewhat intact.
Charles Townes is an accomplished scientist. He won the Nobel Prize in 1964 for inventing the laser (something a little more tangible than, say, demonstrating that spontaneously broken non-abelian gauge theories are renormalizable). He is also this year's winner of the Templeton Prize for "progress towards research or discoveries about spiritual realities." The Prize is awarded each year by the Templeton Foundation, and quite deliberately involves an amount of money (about 800,000 British pounds) that is larger than that for winning the Nobel Prize. Townes is one of those rare scientists who is overtly religious, and would like to see closer connections between science and religion. He sincerely believes that, by investigating the natural world, we are led to belief in a higher power.
The Templeton Foundation was founded by Sir John Templeton, one of the world's most successful investors. Its primary purpose is to encourage a reconciliation between science and religion. It has been fantastically successful, at least with respect to public relations. In recent years there has been a spate of stories in major news outlets about how new discoveries in science are bringing modern science closer to religion. There have been no such discoveries, of course. What there has been is money -- buckets and buckets of money, largely from the Templeton folks, to give prizes and host conferences and support scientists who will say nice things about religion.
I personally am in no danger of winning the Templeton Prize, having gone on record repeatedly as saying that science and religion are intellectually inconsistent, and that taking science seriously as a method for understanding the world is incompatible with honest religious belief. (Yes, I know, not everyone agrees with me.) But I recently received an invitation to speak at Amazing Light, a conference in Berkeley in honor of Charles Townes. The conference is devoted to science, not anything about religion, and I was asked to give a standard review talk about dark matter and dark energy. But the timing was suspiciously close to the announcement of Townes' Templeton Prize, and a quick glance at the conference web page revealed that it was indeed receiving funding from the Templeton Foundation. It is being organized by something called the Metanexus Institute, and is part of a program known as Foundational Questions -- organizations that are somehow associated with the Templeton web.
So I thought about turning down the invitation, since I didn't want to get mixed up with this group with whose purpose I completely disagree. But the conference program seemed innocuous, and the impressive list of participants is full of good and smart people, so eventually I accepted. I figured that there wasn't a moral obligation to completely dissociate myself from any activity involving people with whom I have disagreements. After all, some of my best friends are even Republicans.
Upon further review, I've changed my mind, and decided not to go to the conference after all. (As of right now my name is still on the list of participants, but it will go away eventually.) I talked to Mark, with whom I've discussed these issues before, and he made an argument that seems pretty convincing. The point is that the entire purpose of the Templeton Foundation is to blur the line between straightforward science and explicitly religious activity, making it seem like the two enterprises are part of one big undertaking. It's all about appearances. You have a splashy scientific conference featuring a long list of respected participants, and then you proudly tout the event on a separate web page for your program to bring science and religion together. It doesn't matter that I am a committed atheist, simply giving a talk on interesting findings in modern cosmology; my name would become implicitly associated with an effort I find to be woefully misguided. There are plenty of conferences, with less objectionable sources of funding; I can give this one a pass.
Perhaps this is much ado about nothing, and I shouldn't be so fastidious about where conferences get their funding (which is not exactly plentiful these days). But, to me, these are issues of absolutely paramount importance, and the stakes are too high to permit any possible misunderstanding. I appreciate that the Templeton Foundation is actually, in its own way, quite pro-science, and is not nearly as objectionable as the anti-scientific crackpots at the Discovery Institute. And I have tremendous respect for friends of mine who are sincerely and fervently religious. I just think they are wrong. Religious belief is the Big Lie of our contemporary intellectual life, and scientists more than any other group should be intellectually rigorous about the absolutely real differences between science and faith. It might not be the most politically expedient stance to take, but those of us who fancy ourselves scholars rather than politicians have a duty to the truth more than anything else.
In fact I've already been to a conference that had some support from Templeton -- the Notre Dame symposium where I spoke on why cosmologists are atheists. I have no regrets about that; it was a group of academic philosophers and theologians, explicitly discussing questions of religion and cosmology, and I was up there stating clearly what I thought (i.e., that it was all wrong). Everything was out in the open, there was no real danger of my position being misconstrued. Somewhat paradoxically, it's the conference focused strictly on science that seems more problematic, because that's where there is a danger that mere participation can be construed as implicit approval of the background agenda.
The unfortunate aspect of this late-blooming twinge of conscience is that none of the buckets of money being thrown around will be thrown at me. The honorarium for giving a talk at the Townes conference is $2,000 (over and above travel expenses), and writing a contribution to the proceedings gets you an extra $6,000. A guy could have quite the weekend in Vegas with that kind of scratch.
I used to think that the Bush administration was deeply classical, denying the profound truths of quantum mechanics. But, perhaps in celebration of the World Year of Physics, they seem to be studying up on some of the deep insights of twentieth-century science. Unfortunately, their information appears to come from What the #$*! Do We Know!?, a movie that explains how quantum mechanics is all about a deep connection between our consciousness and physical reality, and how we can actually alter reality itself by shifting our mental states.
Can there be any other explanation?
Bush administration eliminating 19-year-old international terrorism report(From Big Brass Blog and DailyKos; Michael Bérubé has an improved version.)
You can't deny the beauty of the strategy. If you stop thinking about terrorism, there won't be any terrorism! Why didn't we try this sooner?
Saturday, April 16, 2005
I just thought you should know that Allen Iverson is currently ranked #1 in the NBA in scoring (30.8 per game), #2 in steals (2.44), and #5 in assists (8.0). He will be the first person to rank in the top five in all three categories since -- well, since ever. Nobody has ranked in the top five in those categories since steals were first kept as an official statistic in 1972.
Also, he will join Wilt Chamberlain, George Gervin, and Michael Jordan as the only players to win four NBA scoring titles. And they were all at least six inches taller than he is. But he has a lot of tattoos, so he must be a bad person.
Friday, April 15, 2005
Via Daily Kos, a Washington Post article about the new warm-and-fuzzy Larry Summers.
Last week, Summers (who is addressing the Harvard Club in Washington this evening) struck a very different tone.I don't know whether the contrition is honest, or just political positioning; but I don't see any reason not to give him the benefit of the doubt. Not that I'm in any hurry for people to forgive and forget; in the meantime, other universities are benefiting as top scholars gradually leave Harvard for more peaceful pastures, such as the return of political scientist Michael Dawson to Chicago.
Defenders of Summers' original remarks consistently miss the point. They would like to pretend that his critics were arguing either that there are no differences between men and women, or (even worse) that we aren't allowed to talk about such questions. Rubbish. As I mentioned long ago, of course there are differences between men and women. Some of them might even be relevant to being a scientist. Some of them might even favor men! It's really hard to tell, since the signal is so incredibly tiny and hard to measure.
It is also not the point. The point (for those who have missed it) is whether such intrinsic differences have anything to do with the actual disparity in the representation of men and women in science. And the truth is, they don't, at least not at any significant level. You can use this hypothesis to make predictions, and they all come out wrong (for example, the under-representation of women should be nearly uniform from place to place and over time, which is dramatically off, even if progress is slow). And you can actually study the factors that keep women away from science, and you find beyond the shadow of a doubt that a slew of systematic biases are to blame. Talk all you want about intrinsic differences, but don't fool yourself into thinking that you're explaining anything about the current situation.
The idea that Summers' critics want to stifle investigation of the truth is even sillier. There are many social scientists who work precisely on the existence and impact of innate differences between men and women; these people are real scholars, and nobody is trying to get in their way. The criticism of Summers was never that he was telling an unpleasant truth, it's that he was wrong. It's okay to be wrong when you're an assistant professor and minor-league blogger like myself; the rules are different when you are the president of a university. In particular, if you choose to turn a blind eye to a substantial degree of discrimination in your midst, which you really should be leading the fight to do away with, and you are clearly unfamiliar with the basics of what you're talking about, don't be surprised when people are upset.
To be perfectly unambiguous, at the risk of being somewhat repetitive: the point is not that certain hypotheses shouldn't be entertained. The point is that, if you are in a position of great influence and authority, and you haven't carefully looked into the subject matter, and you're wrong, and you're wrong in a way that is potentially damaging to a great deal of people -- you're going to get into trouble. (People are welcome to disagree with me that Summers was wrong; but to pretend that anyone was attempting to stifle free inquiry is simply dishonest.) If Summers had come out in favor of creationism or astrology, the reaction would have been very similar. Maybe he's learned a lesson; at least he has people talking about the issues.
Thursday, April 14, 2005
Lots of good stuff in the latest issue of symmetry magazine. Highlights include:
New York stories
Back in Chicago, for a day or two before flying off once more, after an enjoyable couple of days in New York (and DC before that). I was visiting the Center for Cosmology and Particle Physics, which is an active and fun place to think about fundamental physics and the universe. NYU has been on a hiring binge lately, and the CCPP has the demographics to prove it: Glennys Farrar (PhD 1971) is the sage leader, and the other six faculty members have all received their PhD's since 1992. So they're all at the top of their game, and are helping to make NYU one of the major players in this field. (In a couple of decades they'll just be a collection of old faculty members taking up space; but won't we all? Be old, I mean, not a collection of faculty members.) (Update: Astronomers, apparently, can be useful for quite a long time.)
While in New York, I got to see this blog in the newspaper: there is an article about academic blogging in this week's Village Voice. It's written by Geeta Dayal, who runs the Proven By Science blog. Looks like fellow Chicagoan Eszter Hargittai (of Crooked Timber fame) and I have learned the same lesson from blogging: that you have to actually think through what you are going to say, since it will be read by a bunch of people! Can't be quite as casual as you are when you're just expostulating over coffee. (Readers can judge for themselves how careful I actually am.)
One of the great things about academic blogs is the chance to see through the conventions of scholarly writing and peek at the extracurricular concerns of the flesh-and-blood people who comprise the professoriate. Here is as good an example as you will ever find: Michael Bérubé describing his son Jamie's mastery of Beatles arcana. Jamie, if you aren't familiar with the backstory, has Down's syndrome, but don't let that fool you; when it comes to the lyrics of the John songs and the Paul songs, Jamie will kick your ass.
Wednesday, April 13, 2005
Water on Mars -- into wine!
By Tom Toles.
I'm still at NYU, giving a seminar this afternoon on inflation and the arrow of time. Tomorrow it's back to Chicago, where I'll be hosting Neal Lane, former White House Science Advisor. He'll be giving our Physics Colloquium, with the the provocative title: "One perspective on American science - some trouble ahead!"
Then it's off to Florida for the APS Meeting. I'm the organizer for a session on "Cosmological Constraints on Theories of Gravitation and Fundamental Physics," featuring talks by Arthur Kosowsky, Hiranya Peiris, and fellow cosmologist/blogger Mark Trodden. Should be fun.
Not that any of this traveling is an excuse for flimsy blogging, but there you have it.
Tuesday, April 12, 2005
On colliders and telescopes
Among other responses to the post about fundamental physics in the U.S., there was a position that one occasionally hears: "Who cares about particle physics, we can just do astrophysics instead, it's cheaper and more fun." I've heard this claim even (especially?) from people who have been experimental particle physicists themselves, and have decided to move into astrophysics. This is actually quite an established career path, although not always the easiest one.
The truth is: that's a fine philosophy if your concern is with the employment prospects of physicists, but not if your concern is understanding deep truths about nature. Both astronomy and accelerator-based experiments can teach us something about fundamental physics, but there is no sense in which one is a replacement for the other. That's the point of the surveillance vs. interrogation metaphor. Astrophysics is like eavesdropping: you can overhear things that you wouldn't learn under direct questioning, but you have to take what you can get. Astrophysicists take advantage of the fact that the universe provides higher energies and longer timescales than anything we can duplicate in the lab. But if there's something specific you'd like to know, but it isn't an important astrophysical process, you can't learn anything about it. Particle physics is like interrogation: there are some questions that Nature will clam up and refuse to answer, but at least you can ask very detailed queries under well-controlled conditions.
To be somewhat less allegorical: imagine that we are able to detect dark matter, either "directly" (when we detect the collision of a dark matter particle with material in an underground cryogenic detector) or "indirectly" (when we observe radiation from the annihilation of dark matter particles in the centers of galaxies). Either scenario is quite plausible, if the dark matter is a weakly-interacting massive particle. But then you might like to know, so what is that particle? Is it the lightest supersymmetric partner? Is it a Kaluza-Klein state in a theory with universal extra dimensions? Is it something exotic and different, that we haven't already theorized about? Astrophysical observations will never tell us the answer to these questions. You need to not only see the particle, but to measure its interactions with other particles, known and yet-to-be-discovered. The only way to do that is to push the energy frontier forward at particle accelerators. Similar stories can be told for questions about baryogenesis, extra dimensions, technicolor, and any other theory of physics beyond the Standard Model; Mark has posted about this, and I have a talk I gave a while back.
To be sure, particle physics has issues. Mostly, it's extremely expensive. After the LHC at CERN, we'll want to build the International Linear Collider, for which the numbers look like eight billion dollars or so. That's a lot of cash to devote to pure intellectual curiosity. I think it's well worth the cost, but others might not. That's okay; it's a debate worth having, and I'd be happy to defend the side of devoting some tiny fraction of our wealth to discovering the laws of nature. But it should be clear that this is the choice with which we are faced: spend the money, or don't make the discoveries. Looking through telescopes will always be a complement to colliding particles, never a replacement.
Monday, April 11, 2005
The Desire to Paint
National Poetry Month continues. (And I am still on the road, currently shifting from D.C. to NYC.) So here is a prose poem from Paris Spleen by Charles Baudelaire, translated by L.M. Friedman.
Unhappy perhaps is man, but happy the artist torn by desire.
Saturday, April 09, 2005
Friday Random Ten: Late In So Many Ways Edition
Greetings from Washington, D.C., where I gave a colloquium yesterday at Goddard Space Flight Center. Had fun catching up with old friends, and listening to NASA scuttlebut. (Science-wise, things are looking pretty gloomy right now, although not completely hopeless.) Less fun was when my laptop, for the first time ever, balked at transmitting my talk to the projector. I managed to convert my OpenOffice presentation to PowerPoint, saved it to a flash drive, transferred it to another laptop, and used that. (I don't have PowerPoint on my computer, and nobody else has OpenOffice.) So it was salvageable, but about 10% of my figures didn't show up, which was disconcerting.
In lieu of substantive blogging, the good news is that I am now empowered to participate in everyone's favorite blog game: the Friday Random Ten, in which you put your iPod (or whatever) on shuffle and list the first ten songs that show up. I think I saw it first at Rox Populi (who disowned it, but can't seem to give up), but also at Feministe, Pandagon, Pharyngula, Grammar.police, Majikthise, Yglesias, and Crescat -- so an eclectic crowd indeed. After buying the damn iPod six months ago, I have finally gotten around to downloading my CD's to it (half of them, anyway), and am now equipped to play along. Day late, dollar short, whatever.
Thursday, April 07, 2005
Happy thought for the day
Book royalties are not subject to self-employment taxes. Hey, I don't make the rules.
Oscar Brown Jr.
Tavis Smiley is a hard worker, hosting talk shows on both PBS and public radio. (He's no longer doing a daily show on NPR, but will be starting again with a weekend show for Public Radio International.) Tavis can be goofy at times, but I owe him big time for introducing me to Oscar Brown Jr.
Born in Chicago in 1926, Brown is probably most famous as a singer, songwriter, and lyricist. But he has also been active in television, and at the age of 26 hosted the nation's first Black radio news show. His masterpiece is his first album, Sin and Soul from 1960. The songs are a mixture of styles, from the deadly serious to the lushly beautiful to the cheerfully frivolous. The most well-known is Afro Blue, a tune that started life as an instrumental written by Mongo Santamaria. It became famous when John Coltrane recorded it, but became a standard after Brown wrote lyrics for it.
If anything, the flaw in the album is that Brown has too much range, and will juxtapose a jaunty ditty with something deadly serious. An example of the latter is my favorite song on the album, Bid 'Em In. Brown sings it almost a cappella, in the style of an auctioneer, accompanied only by the percussive rap of a gavel. It tells the story of the auction of a slave girl.
Bid 'em in! Get 'em in!The song enjoyed a rediscovery last year, when it was made into a short animated film by Neal Sopata. The film is astonishing and powerful, although I would give most of the credit to the song itself. Hopefully publicity from film will turn a new audience onto the work of this master.
Wednesday, April 06, 2005
Fundamental physics in the U.S.
Scientists who work on fundamental physics, especially in the U.S., are feeling a kind of urgency these days -- we have to hurry up and get as much research done as we can before the government puts us completely out of business. Belle Waring complains about the shutdown of the Voyager mission, which is indeed a shame, if mostly for sentimental reasons. A much harder hit is NASA's cancellation of the Astrophysics Data Analysis and Long Term Space Astrophysics programs. These programs were a main way to support young scientists (grad students, postdocs, junior faculty) working on theory and data analysis with broad application to NASA's satellite observatories. In other words, in the midst of a golden age of new theories and experiments, we are strangling the field at the point where new blood is entering.
For those of you with more Earth-based concerns, you should know that the U.S. is also basically abandoning experimental particle physics (pdf version if that one is inaccessible). The Tevatron at Fermilab will run through the end of the decade, after which there is basically nothing left in the budget for high-energy physics in the U.S. By that time the focus will move to the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Geneva, and the traditional brain-drain of bright physicists from Europe to the U.S. will reverse its direction. My real interest is in the health of the field, not in maintaining U.S. dominance, but it will be hard for the field to stay very healthy if the U.S. isn't a major player. Our best hope for a turnaround is if the U.S. makes a serious bid to host the International Linear Collider; but that's a long way off, and the tea leaves don't look so promising. (Update: Just noticed that Peter wrote about the same thing.)
But okay, I don't want to be gloomy all the time, so here's some good news: the LIGO gravitational-wave observatory continues to make progress toward their design goals. LIGO, the Laser Interferometric Gravitational-wave Observatory, consists of two facilities -- one in Hanford, Washington, and the other in Livingston, Louisiana. Each facility shoots lasers down two four-kilometer evacuated tubes, where they bounce off suspended mirrors and come back. By comparing the phases of the light from each tube, you can look for tiny changes in their length, which would signal a passing gravitational wave.
Of course, you're looking for really tiny changes in length; about one part in 1021 or so. Which, over four kilometers, adds up to significantly less than the size of a single atomic nucleus. So you have to be pretty sensitive. LIGO has been operational for a few years now, and they are steadily beating down the noise curve -- the amount of irreducible jiggle in the detector that you can't get rid of. The idea is that anything you observe on top of the noise is an actual signal, such as a pair of inspiraling neutron stars giving off gravitational waves. According an update by David Shoemaker in the most recent Matters of Gravity, the LIGO folks are making significant progress in eliminating various noise sources, such as trucks rolling by.
Here's the graph of noise versus frequency, showing both the goal (solid line at bottom) and what levels they have achieved over time. (Click for larger size.) As you see, they are getting there, and have already decreased the noise by something like three orders of magnitude over the last couple of years. LIGO may or may not see anything in its current configuration; a planned upgrade to "Advanced LIGO" is much more likely to actually detect a gravitational wave. Once they do, it will open a completely new window onto the universe.
Tuesday, April 05, 2005
Conservatives, science, academia
Paul Krugman states the obvious: one reason why academics tend to be liberals is that modern conservatism has become increasingly anti-reason and anti-intellectual.
But honestly, this reasoning is a little self-congratulatory and superficial (even if it contains a lot of truth). The tendency of academics to be liberal runs much deeper than a reaction against the current wave of know-nothingism in the Republican party.
If we try to put in terms that are as value-neutral as possible, I think that it comes down to idealism and universalism. Conservatives tend to take pride in their tough-mindedness, a realistic and hard-nosed approach to the dog-eat-dog world we find ourselves in. Looking out for number one is not only a life strategy, but a moral good. Academics, meanwhile, tend to have a different set of values; not only do they value learning for its own sake (above more straightforward values of material success), but they develop an ability to understand and sympathize with people in different groups and circumstances. In the truest sense of the word, to be "conservative" is to cherish certain established verities, while a good academic is always questioning accepted ideas, and approaching alternatives in a spirit of open-mindedness. That's why you'll always find universities to be mostly liberal, even in the hard sciences (where even the most paranoid conservatives don't think that faculty are hired on the basis of their political views). None of the legislation that David Horowitz tries to get passed will ever change that.
Monday, April 04, 2005
Time-saving tips for understanding Einstein
PZ Myers, presumably exhausted from smacking down the same tired arguments from creationists (I know I would be), has tossed one to me. It's against Einstein instead of Darwin, so it's my bailiwick, I have to admit. But this little piece of foolishness -- a brief piece against special relativity on a website grammatically entitled Intelligent Design the Future -- is so thoroughly clueless that's it's not even mildly diverting. If these people weren't taking over the country, they wouldn't even rise to the level of being amusing.
So, instead of going through the nonsense point-by-point, I thought it would be more useful for me to offer a little set of guidelines to the discerning reader: Signs That You Might Not Be Reading A Sensible Critique of Relativity.
Here's the truth: Einstein proposed that the amount of time elapsed between two spacetime events depends (in a very definite way) on the path taken between those events. It is not simply a universal constant, as it would be in Newtonian physics. So the notion of "simultaneity" for distant events is just a useful approximation, valid when everyone is traveling slowly compared to the speed of light. And you know what? Einstein was right. It's been verified over and over again, from the lifetimes of rapidly-moving subatomic particles to the time kept by atomic clocks moving in airplanes. Deal with it.
And here's a little request for anyone else who wants to point out flaws in Einstein. Whatever else you might think, Einstein was a smart cookie. Nothing he said was sacred (my first published paper proposed a theory that violated some of Einstein's ideas, as have several of my subsequent papers), but you should at least understand what he said before you claim to improve on it. So take a gander at the problem sets for my course in general relativity, and have a go. If you get an average of over 50% on all the sets (as all of the students in my class did), I'll give your ideas a respectful hearing. Otherwise, you should go back and hit the books if you expect anyone to take you seriously.
So it will be North Carolina against Illinois for all the marbles tonight. As Michael Bérubé notes, the Illini victory against Louisville was probably abetted by the fact that they left Chief Illiniwek at home.
Here's a short essay about the Chief by Philip Phillips, a physicist at UIUC. Philip was one of the Illinois faculty who won a legal case against the University administration after the latter tried to forbid them from contacting athletes the University was trying to recruit. It was a brilliant idea, really: just call up all the high school basketball and football players that were targeted by UIUC, and explain to them the travesty of the Chief. Stuff that would normally go under the protection of "free speech," but the University claimed that it would be in violation of NCAA regulations. Usually those regulations are trying to limit the ability of different schools to attract athletes, not keep them away, but it was a convenient excuse.
My favorite historical Pope is Celestine V, one of the Bad Popes described so entertainingly in E.R. Chamberlin's book of the same name.
In 1294 the Papacy wielded a great deal more power than it does today, and the great families of Rome were constantly jockeying to put their own upon St. Peter's throne. Deliberations by the College of Cardinals would often drag on interminably, and this time was especially bad, having reached eighteen months as a deadlock between the Colonna and Orsini families seemed unbreakable. In frustration, one of the Cardinals nominated Pietro di Morrone, a holy hermit who preferred to live in small, dirty mountain caves, even as he grew in renown among the most devout. In even greater frustration, the rest of the College agreed, and Pietro was dragged out of his cave to become Celestine V.
But not dragged back to Rome; he refused to go, and (encouraged by King Charles of Naples) set up court at Castello Nuovo in the South. He had a small wooden cell constructed, resembling a cave, where he could hide himself. His followers rejoiced that the dominance of sin and corruption was at an end, to be replaced by a reign of love guided by the Holy Spirit. But Celestine was an awful pope; he issued contradictory orders, granted any request he received, and allowed the papal bureaucracy to crumble into disarray.
Finally, listening to the urgings of Cardinal Benedict Gaetani, Celestine took the unprecedented step of resigning as Pope, after a reign of just fifteen weeks. The College met again, and within twenty-four hours Gaetani was elected Pope, taking the name Boniface VIII. The ambitious lawyer was faced with a problem, however; Celestine, even though abdicated and desiring nothing other than to return to obscurity, could serve as a rallying point for the new Pope's enemies. So Boniface had him transported back to Rome, but Celestine and some of his supporters arranged an escape along the way. Eventually, in the course of an attempted crossing of the Adriatic to Greece, he was caught and dragged back to the Holy City, where he was imprisoned in the isolated fortress of Fumone. He died less than a year later, but not before offering a prophesy to Boniface: "You have entered like a fox, you will reign like a lion -- and you will die like a dog." Boniface ruled for nine years, putting down numerous rebellions by competing families, eventually locking himself in the Lateran palace, where he died in despair, planning insane revenges against his enemies.
Celestine was canonized in 1313. There has been no Celestine VI. Maybe the next Pope will choose to rehabilitate the name.
Sunday, April 03, 2005
April is National Poetry Month, as diligent readers of the Preposterous blogroll have already been told by Lauren, Roxanne, and Amanda (at the least -- I'm not the most diligent reader myself). Since we already have occasional poetry around here, let's celebrate by dipping into the classics. How about Shakespeare's 18th Sonnet?
Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?Perhaps you've heard this one before, but it holds up. It's on my mind due to a scene from Tom Stoppard's Travesties, currently playing at the Court Theatre at UofC. In the play, Dadaist poet Tristan Tzara creates a new work by cutting the sonnet into fragments and pulling them randomly out of a hat.
Darling--Quite a compelling result -- but something tells me the version presented in the play wasn't really produced quite so randomly.
Saturday, April 02, 2005
These guys are good
What will they think of next? Google ride finder. See where taxis are throughout Chicago, in real time. (Probably they have other cities as well.)
Friday, April 01, 2005
No time for substantive blogging, as today is the Open House for prospective grad students in both Physics and Astronomy and Astrophysics here at UofC. My duty is to convince everyone that this is the best place in the world, which fortunately isn't such a hard sell.
I do find myself explaining that my own trajectory is not a good role model. I'm one of the few physics professors you'll find without any degrees in physics (I was in Astronomy departments for both undergrad and grad school). In my day (late 80's, early 90's), it wasn't clear where to specialize if you were interested in particle physics and/or cosmology -- there weren't any specialties that were especially lively. Now there are too many -- inflation and its connections to the CMB and large-scale structure, dark matter theory and experiment, dark energy theory and experiment, ultra-high-energy cosmic rays, galaxy clusters and the Sunyaev-Zeldovich effect, accelerator-based particle physics, numerical relativity and field theory, particle phenomenology, string theory and cosmology, pure string theory, gravitational-wave astrophysics, and a couple dozen areas outside the realm of field theory and cosmology. All of these areas are more exciting than they were fifteen years ago. Kids today don't know how good they have it.