Tuesday, May 31, 2005
Brad DeLong (after artfully denying that he would ever read Wonkette) points to an enlightening list at Human Events Online -- the Ten Most Harmful Books of the 19th and 20th Centuries. As voted on by leading conservative thinkers!
But the list of runners-up is where it really gets good.
But it's Darwin's appearance that is most telling. If this really does represent mainstream conservatism, its intellectual bankruptcy is showing.
Sex and physics -- what else is there?
If you're an icon as famous as Albert Einstein without, people will always take delight in pointing out your shortcomings. That doesn't mean the shortcomings aren't real, of course. In the case of Einstein, two things stand out: his stubborn search for a unified theory gravitation and electromagnetism (ignoring the lessons of quantum mechanics), and his treatment of women. In an interview at Edge.org, Dennis Overbye wonders whether the two aren't related.
I know lots of people like Albert. I might be like him myself. He was a hopeless romantic, he lived on anticipation. He was always yearning for the next thing. He was always envisioning some wonderful life with somebody else, while grimly enduring life with the woman he was with. If I think about it, I would say that that was kind of the key to his psychology, that he had the lure of the perfect situation, the perfect person. Of course if you're Einstein, you want everything that you want your way and then you want to be left alone. So you want love, and you want affection, you want a good meal, but then you don't want any interference outside of that, so you don't want any obligations interfering with your life, with your work. Which is a difficult stance to maintain in an adult relationship; it doesn't work. Everything has to be a give and take.For more, check out Dennis's book Einstein in Love.
Monday, May 30, 2005
Entropy and intelligence
In the comments to the previous post, PZ complains (rightfully) about creationists who claim that only intelligence can lead to the decrease in entropy of an open system that is required to explain the complexity of life. A crazy claim, of course, since the Second Law only applies to closed systems, so open systems are perfectly free to have their entropy go up or down (as they do all the time).
Fortunately, last week we had a nice physics colloquium by Ron Walsworth, who provided a simple example on which we can test the hypothesis that only intelligence can decrease entropy (or disorder, or whatever). Consider the following system: a rectangular container filled part way with tiny spheres, some of them made of glass and some of brass. All the spheres have equal size, but the brass ones are heavier than the glass ones. Okay, now please tell me which of these configurations has the lowest entropy (or highest order, or greatest complexity, or whatever it is that you think only intelligence can bring into existence):
And the answer is: you're wrong. No matter what configuration you picked. The plain truth is, each of the various configurations is achieved by simply jiggling the system, for some value of the free parameters. Nothing intelligent went into it. Since you have now been proven incorrect, I am confident that you won't be bringing up this canard any more.
Actually, I'm quite confident that this little demonstration will have no effect on you at all. I'm sure you will somehow fix up your definitions so that this example doesn't apply, just as you would do for any other example. People who want to disbelieve in natural selection aren't swayed by logical arguments and the scientific method; they are wedded to their convictions with a passion that transcends mere rationality. But we can try.
Sunday, May 29, 2005
PZ Myers has too much fun over at Pharyngula. He gets to make fun of a steady stream of creationists, each seemingly more clueless than the last. Swatting them down might get boring after a while because it's just not that challenging, but why not enjoy yourself while doing a service as well.
The latest victim is Babu G. Ranganathan at a site called Intellectual Conservative. While it is considerate of the site to distinguish itself from ordinary conservatives, it is certainly asking for trouble to label yourself "intellectual" and then write things that are not only spectacularly incorrect, but hoary old chestnuts that have been debunked over and over again. This time, it's the old "evolution is inconsistent with the Second Law of Thermodynamics" canard.
The simple fact is that the law of entropy precludes macro-evolution from ever occurring. Entropy is the measure of increasing disorder in a system. The natural (or spontaneous) tendency of matter and of all of energy is toward greater disorder -- not toward greater order or complexity as evolution would teach. This tendency towards disorder that exists in all matter can only be temporarily overcome if there exists an energy converting and directing mechanism to develop and maintain order.Ugh, that is just horrible. But the entire article is redeemed for me by this bit:
It doesn't matter whether a system is open (unlimited energy) or closed (with limited energy), entropy occurs in both systems. In fact, scientists discovered entropy here on our very earth, which is an open system in relation to the sun. It is not enough just to have sufficient energy (an open system) for greater order to develop. There also has to be an energy converting and directing mechanism.Wow! Scientists have discovered entropy here on our very earth! Stop the presses!
PZ points to the talk.origins article on this issue. But actually I think the discussion is not precisely on point; while it's true that "entropy" is not a precise synonym for "disorder," it's not a completely misleading definition, and it's not the essence of the mistake that is being made by creationists. The mistake is one that Ranganathan seems to know he is making, yet insists on making anyway: the Second Law only says that entropy increases in closed (isolated) systems, which the Earth is not. For an open system such as the Earth, the Second Law simply has nothign to say, one way or the other. If, on the other hand, you were to take a living organism and completely isolate it by putting it in a sealed box, guess what: it would die, increasing its entropy all the while.
Life on Earth is possible because we are very far from thermal equilibrium, a state of maximal entropy. The Sun is a hot spot in a very cold sky; that means that the Earth can absorb high-energy photons from it, and radiate them away at lower (infrared) wavelengths. This process greatly increases the overall entropy of the Solar System, no matter what the piddling little organisms here on Earth are doing. Imagine what would happen if the situation were different, without a hot spot in a cold sky -- if the entire sky were the same temperature, everything on Earth would quickly equilibrate at precisely that temperature, and motion and life would be impossible.
It's a characteristic feature of crackpots in any field, as seen in the Einstein skeptics as well -- a sneaking suspicion that the so-called experts could be so completely stupid as to miss a point that is so obvious any high-schooler could come up with it. Or an Intellectual Conservative.
Update: via Chris C Mooney and the Poor Man, news that Tech Central Station is now also publishing pro-creationism pieces. This one is also quite enlightening, as it makes clear the extent to which Intelligent Design not only involves a logical fallacy (who designed the designer?), but insists that the designer is something we don't know anything about, and explains precisely nothing.
Friday, May 27, 2005
The Hammer: a mite sensitive
Tom DeLay is miffed that his name was taken in vain on an episode of Law & Order.
WASHINGTON - House Majority Leader Tom DeLay is upset that a popular NBC crime drama used his name as part of its show.
My blog-reading has been spotty of late, but I can't believe I missed this. A post at Crooked Timber by Eszter Hargittai points out that physicists can occasionally be, how shall we say, somewhat less than fully aware of work done in fields outside their own. Willfully ignorant, you might almost say. The example she uses is work on social networking and "small worlds," the study of connectivity between various networks. A fascinating topic to social scientists, obviously, but also amenable to study by physicists interested in complex systems and power-law behavior. Unfortunately, the two groups don't seem to talk that much. Here's a graph of an interesting example of a social network -- in this case, researchers working on social networks! They fall neatly into two mutually exclusive groups of self-citers, physicists in black and others in white.
Thursday, May 26, 2005
The culture of one-party rule
Mark Schmitt knows why the Senators were so happy to pound out a compromise on judicial nominees and the filibuster, and it's actually a heartening analysis. His take is that legislators really live for the kind of intense negotiating parley that it takes to pound out and agreement of this sort, as opposed to fundraising and campaigning and the other necessary evils of political life. Unfortunately, these days there are very few opportunities for this kind of legislative gruntwork, which has been abandoned in favor of a heavy-handed dominance of the ruling party.
My most vivid memories of working in the Senate are of witnessing such interactions. I remember that as the welfare reform bill of 1996 moved toward passage, seeing Senators Dodd and Hatch just off the floor madly negotiating how to add more money for child care, in a kind of intense duet -- and feeling sort of sad that my boss, in implacable opposition, couldn't really be a part of it. I remember watching the bipartisan group that tried to salvage something from the Clinton health care debacle throw themselves into ten-hour days of learning and bargaining, and I have a feeling, just as a distant observer, that the process was still gratifying and thrilling despite failing to produce a result.The "boss" referred to above is Bill Bradley, so the guy knows what he's talking about.
Wednesday, May 25, 2005
A million is a statistic
An interesting mention in the Straight Dope last week about the Armenian genocides earlier in this century. Just one of those incomprehensibly horrific tragedies that numb the sensibilities by the scope of their devastation. Our emotions simply lack the dynamic range to really appreciate what it means to have over a million people -- the population of Detroit, Michigan -- be killed by their fellow humans.
Here is a list of the human-initiated events of the twentieth century that left over one million people dead. Wars, genocides, and famines are all lumped together, for what it's worth. The numbers are very much up for debate; I've taken these from the much more comprehensive discussion by Matthew White. Talking about such a subject is difficult, because it immediately veers off into quibbling about the numbers and pointless comparisons about whose tragedy is worse or more shamefully neglected. All of these events are unique and horrible, and the reason they are worth remembering is to prevent their like from ever happening again.
Tuesday, May 24, 2005
The Bible in schools: not always illegal
Atrios is right (again, but in a different context): it is not necessarily illegal to read the Bible out loud in a public school.
PHILADELPHIA (Reuters) - A Pennsylvania school district violated the free-speech rights of a parent who was prevented from reading the Bible to her son's kindergarten class, an attorney for the woman said on Monday.This is a case where church and state are simply supposed to be separate, not actively hostile. If the principal, or one of the teachers, were to read the Bible as a part of a regular school event (and not just a course that studied the Bible as literature and mythology), that would be completely inappropriate. But an individual parent has the right to come in and read what they like, even if they are clearly just trying to cause a stir. There really should be some straightforward set of guidelines that is handed out to all school officials who are faced with these issues -- we shouldn't have to go to the Supreme Court every time.
Of course, it would be just as okay for a parent to read from Why I Am Not a Christian, or any similar text. And I presume Ms. Busch would agree.
Young Scholars Competition
Buckets of money being offered to young physicists by the Templeton Foundation. I've sort of removed myself from the running, leaving the door open to other enterprising youngsters who might want to enter the competition.
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Monday, May 23, 2005
Good catch over at Pandagon -- the Associated Press doesn't know what to make of those scary atheists.
Just how tolerant of Christianity and other religions are the atheists?Jesse says what needs to be said. So does David Fitzgerald, for that matter. But still -- "nonetheless"? Booing Pat Robertson is supposed to be incompatible with tolerating religious belief? Is tolerance supposed to demand a positive judgment of any religious person, no matter how odious?
And I like how Robertson is identified, for those who don't know him, as "a leader in the efforts by some religious groups to return America and its government to Christian values." Why not say that Robertson is "a leader in the campaign to blow up the State Department"? Really, he's given us so much source material for colorful descriptions. He's a leader in the campaign to, you know, tolerate other religious beliefs:
"You say you're supposed to be nice to the Episcopalians and the Presbyterians and the Methodists and this, that, and the other thing. Nonsense. I don't have to be nice to the spirit of the Antichrist. I can love the people who hold false opinions but I don't have to be nice to them."--Pat Robertson, The 700 Club, January 14, 1991Don't forget his strong feminist credentials:
"NOW is saying that in order to be a woman, you've got to be a lesbian."--Pat Robertson, "The 700 Club," 12/3/97
"The feminist agenda is not about equal rights for women. It is about a socialist, anti-family political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism, and become lesbians." -- Pat Robertson, fundraising letter, 1992A leading Constitutional scholar:
"There is no such thing as separation of church and state in the Constitution. It is a lie of the Left and we are not going to take it anymore." --Pat Robertson, November 1993 during an address to the American Center for Law and JusticeAnd always with an eye to protecting the children:
"I think we ought to close Halloween down. Do you want your children to dress up as witches? The Druids used to dress up like this when they were doing human sacrifice... [Your children] are acting out Satanic rituals and participating in it, and don't even realize it."--Pat Robertson, "The 700 Club," 10/29/82I guess, when you're as accomplished as Pat, it's hard to be summed up in just a few words.
Sexy? Sure. Easy? Never.
Via a list of links (Volokh to Prawfsblawg to Pub Sociology to Andrew Gelman), we are led to a study that addresses one of the crucial pressing issues of the contemporary academy: how (or why) do some people get good teaching evaluations? Answer: by giving good grades and by being sexy. Here's the abstract of the paper, by Felton, Mitchell, and Stinson:
College students publicly rate their professors' teaching at RateMyProfessors.com, a web page where students anonymously judge their professors on Quality, Easiness, and Sexiness. Using the data from this web site, we examine the relations between Quality, Easiness, and Sexiness for 3,190 professors at 25 universities. For faculty with at least 10 student posts, the correlation between Quality and Easiness is 0.61, and the correlation between Quality and Sexiness is 0.30. Using simple linear regression, we find that about half of the variation in Quality is a function of Easiness and Sexiness. Accordingly, these results suggest that about half of the variation in student opinion survey scores used by universities for promotion, tenure, and teaching award decisions may be due to the easiness of the course and the sexiness of the professor. When grouped into sexy and non-sexy professors, the data reveal that students give sexy-rated professors higher Quality and Easiness scores. Based on these findings, universities need to rethink the use of student opinion surveys as a valid measure of teaching effectiveness. High student opinion survey scores might well be viewed with suspicion rather than reverence, since they might indicate a lack of rigor, little student learning, and grade inflation.Now, I admit I haven't read the paper itself very carefully. And I'm always reluctant to criticize credentialed experts in fields outside my own (really, I am). But this abstract doesn't fill me with a great deal of confidence.
First, the data come from RateMyProfessors.com. You're kidding, right? Perhaps there might be some sort of selection bias in the students who take the time to fill in entries on the web site? More importantly, the authors seem to take for granted the existence of a priori categories of "easiness" and "sexiness," and claim that their existence is distorting the sought-after measure of "quality." It seems not to occur to them that, for example, sexiness and quality might correlate because they both are caused by some third external factor. Or that a class might be subjectively rated as relatively easy, not because the grade distribution was actually higher, but because the students came away with the feeling that they had really understood the material. Or, most likely of all, that students found certain professors to be sexy because they were good teachers. Effective pedagogy, you don't need me to remind you, is hot.
(And no, I don't have an entry at RateMyProfessors.com. But my teaching evaluations are pretty good. Draw your own conclusions.)
Saturday, May 21, 2005
From yesterday's New York Times. (Thanks to George Musser for the tip.) You'll read about it elsewhere, I imagine. But the message bears repeating.
In U.S. Report, Brutal Details of 2 Afghan Inmates' DeathsThink about that last sentence the next time someone talks about ticking-time-bomb scenarios.
Different responses (e.g. from Jane Galt, Bitch, Ph.D., Matthew Yglesias, Kevin Drum, and Brad DeLong) to this New York Times series on social class. Personally I was struck by the graphic on How Class Works. If we take the column on the class value assigned to various occupations at face value, it would appear that "Astronomers and Physicists" are the fifth most classy (if you will) occupation we have, out of a list of about 440 possibilities. Woot!
The top ten would appear to be:
Friday, May 20, 2005
The Sonne Rising
By John Donne.
Wednesday, May 18, 2005
Spend spend spend, elect elect elect
Here's a remarkable picture I had never seen before, found at Josh Friess's new blog and ultimately from Ed Hall. It's a plot of the national debt versus time, adjusted for inflation.
The obvious here is so obvious that it's almost physically painful: a long period of relative stability post-WWII, followed by a sudden period of rapid growth instituted by Reagan, which wasn't halted until Clinton came to office, and was immediately resumed by his successor.
Whether or not a certain amount of debt is good for the economy is an interesting and complicated question. There are very good arguments, at the least, that you wouldn't want to work your way all the way down to zero debt, as it would dramatically curtail our flexibility in dealing with the money supply. But the unavoidable fact is that eventually this debt is going to have to be repaid. When the tax-cutters talk about giving money back to people, they are lying. In truth they are continuing to spend the money, just on credit. If they really wanted to give the money back, they would cut government spending. But spending is fun, just like cutting taxes is fun, and it would take actual responsible grown-ups to resist either temptation.
Tuesday, May 17, 2005
Women in Science Symposium
Everyone talks about the status of women in science, nobody ever does anything about it. But this Friday, May 20th, here at the University of Chicago, we are going to -- well, okay, we're going to talk about it. But maybe some action will come out of it, who knows?
We're having a brief symposium entitled Why So Few Women in Science? Defining the Problem and Taking Action. It's just for the afternoon, starting at 1:00 and stretching to about 6:00, in the Biological Sciences Learning Center auditorium. We've assembled a topflight crew of experts to talk about different issues: Rachel Ivie from the American Institute of Physics to give an overview of the current situation (at least in physics and astronomy), Kimberlee Shauman from UC Davis to talk about how things have been changing through time, Londa Schiebinger from Stanford to talk about issues of bias facing women scientists, and Tim McKay (see, we believe in diversity) from the University of Michigan to talk about the particular steps that have been taken at UM to address the problems. We'll finish up with a panel discussion, after which the road to greater progress will undoubtedly be perfectly clear. Thanks to Evalyn Gates for taking the initiative to actually do something.
If you're interested in this sort of thing (and who isn't?), there's an interesting debate at Edge.org on "The Science of Gender and Science," between Steven Pinker and Elizabeth Spelke. Unfortunately, they focus on the annoyingly irresistible issue of innate gender differences, rather than discussing the broader forces affecting the status of women in science. But, given that, they are both well-informed, sensible, and entertaining, and give strong arguments for their respective positions -- Pinker that innate differences are crucial in understanding the underrepresentation of women in science, Spelke that social forces are essentially to blame. You can read them and draw your own conclusions. (Having said that, I can't resist mentioning that Pinker engages in some truly dazzling instances of circular reasoning and question-begging. I mean, the math SAT's must be good measurements of ability because most of the people who go on to successful science careers did well on them? Hmmm....)
Monday, May 16, 2005
History isn't always fair
I threaten to slow down with the blogging, but apparently that only means that the amount of substantive content will decrease, not the frequency of posting. I did want to point to this completely unfair but nevertheless quite amusing comparison of George W. Bush to Franklin D. Roosevelt. Hardly a sensible comparison (even if you leave out the photos of GWB with the binoculars), but it's GWB who keeps inviting it, so there you are.
That link takes you to a somewhat uncharacteristic post at Cleveland Park Men's Club, which seems to be more typically devoted to a discussion of meeting women at Washington, DC nightspots. Learn more from Kriston, who will also keep you updated on important discoveries at a related site, Washington Socialites. As a practicing theoretical physicist, I can very much relate to the demands this kind of lifestyle places on one.
Friday, May 13, 2005
Thursday, May 12, 2005
We try harder
The winners of the Gravity Research Foundation essay competition have been announced. (And if you're wondering how they did it so quickly, the deadline was actually the end of March.) Links where I could find them.
Gravity Research FoundationAh well, it's not whether you win or lose, and all that. In the immortal words of Geddy Lee, "Ten bucks is ten bucks, eh?" Meanwhile, Mark fills us in on why you need a smooth patch of the early universe in order to start inflation.
Wednesday, May 11, 2005
I don't have the strength/time/interest to slog through the entries at Arianna Huffington's celebrity blog, but others do. Tigerhawk highlights this piece by Larry David:
Why, even this morning my moronic assistant handed me a cup of coffee with way too much milk in it. I was incensed.It reminded me of a similar anecdote I had recently read -- where was that, now? -- ah yes, at Darth Vader's blog:
I am aboard the StarDestroyer Avenger, en route to the outlands of Mordell at the galactic rim -- but I started my morning on Coruscant. I was having my morning tea when the new girl came through to tell me the Emperor commanded my presence at the palace.Larry David wishes he was Darth Vader.
Black hole being born
It looks like we may have seen the first moments of a black hole being born. This image (from Joshua Bloom's web page) shows the optical counterpart of a new gamma-ray burst discovered by the Swift satellite. It seems likely that this event has resulted from the coalescence of two neutron stars. As the neutron stars spiral together, the smaller one is ripped apart by tidal forces, spreading into a disk of material. Some of the material accretes on the remaining neutron star, which reaches the point of no return and explodes, creating a black hole. Part of the matter outside the black hole is violently ejected, crashing into the surrounding interstellar medium, producing the flash of gamma-rays detected by Swift.
I won't go into too many details about the story, since Steinn Sigurðsson knows this stuff much better than I do, and has explained what is happening in a series of great posts (one, two, three), from which I've stolen everything I'm writing here (and apologies in advance for what I mess up). Gamma-ray bursts are ultra-high energy events at cosmological distances (i.e., well outside our galaxy) that have fascinated astrophysicists for years now. The crucial point is that there are two types of bursts, long-duration (a few seconds) and short-duration (hundredths of seconds). The long-duration bursts are thought to arise from especially violent supernova explosions, and are typically found in galaxies undergoing copious star formation. The short-duration ones are likely to come from the coalescence of compact objects like neutron stars or black holes. This leads to a couple of expectations: close binary systems of compact objects can take a very long time to coalesce, so there's no reason to find them near star-forming regions (all the stars having formed long ago). Also, the closeness of the binary often arises through close gravitational interactions with other stars, which can serve to give the binary a serious kick, so that it zooms right out of the host galaxy.
However, until now astronomers had never been able to pinpoint an optical counterpart to a short-period burst. (It's hard to determine the direction from which gamma rays are coming. Swift uses a multi-stage technique, in which it first detects the gammas and then zooms in with X-ray and optical telescopes.) The image above shows the optical counterpart of this particular burst, GRB 050509b. It is short-duration, and appears to be lurking on the outskirts of a giant elliptical galaxy. Such galaxies are no longer forming stars, and the fact that the object is outside the galaxy proper (by perhaps 35000 parsecs) makes it fit nicely with the coalescing-neutron-star model. So those few glowing pixels are perhaps the baby photos of a new black hole. Amazing what stories astronomers can spin from such sparse data.
Update: In the comments, Matt points out that the purported optical counterpart doesn't seem to be varying, which a real gamma-ray burst afterglow certainly would be. But as Steinn says, the X-ray counterpart is definitely there.
Tuesday, May 10, 2005
Jennie Chen and I have written a short essay for the Gravity Research Foundation Essay Competition. You can find it at gr-qc/0505037; it's basically a distillation of some of the philosophical parts of our longer paper on the arrow of time. Nobody claims to have a really clear picture of the onset of inflation, but two possibilities are invoked most frequently: either "chaotic" initial conditions (a la Linde), or creation of the universe from nothing. We critique the former (following Penrose) on the basis that an appropriate proto-inflationary region is fantastically unlikely to occur randomly, much more unlikely even than the spontaneous appearance of our universe in its current state. And we critique the latter by noting that it violates time symmetry in a completely ad hoc fashion -- why impose certain boundary conditions at early times but not at late times? Our solution to the conundrum is to imagine a nearly-empty de Sitter state that forms the "backbone" of the universe, off of which new inflationary regions are occasionally generated via thermal fluctuations.
The Gravity Research Foundation is a funny institution, originally founded by Roger Babson (who also founded Babson College) in order to promote research into neutralizing the effects of gravity. That's hard to do (impossible, if what we think we know about gravity is anything close to correct), and the Foundation was originally home to quite a few cranky ideas. But more recently it has become more respectable, and nowadays seems to not do much other than sponsor these essay competitions, which feature a lot of very interesting papers by respectable people. My one previous time entering (as a grad student), I got an honorable mention, which is not very hard. This time I'm hoping for some big bucks.
And if you're not overly fond of my philosophizing, try out the Beatles'. "McCartney elaborates Frege's sense/reference distinction." (Via Brian Leiter.)
Monday, May 09, 2005
Greetings from Geneva, world center of banking, watches, and high-energy physics. (Three fields of endeavor which, not coincidentally, each place a premium on exquisite precision.) I'm at CERN for the week, giving a set of academic lectures on "Cosmology for Particle Physicists." (Wow, I just gave the first lecture a couple of hours ago, and the video is already up! Welcome to Switzerland.) Here are the slides as html and a 1.2M pdf file. Nothing you haven't seen before, in the likely event that you've been reading all of my talks as I put them on the web.
Four more lectures to come, slightly more detailed and technical than the introductory gee-whiz first lecture: 1. Dark matter and dark energy; 2. Thermodynamics in the early universe; 3. Perturbations and large-scale structure; 4. Inflation and beyond. Also unlike the first lecture, these will be on the blackboard instead of from some pretty computer presentation. Because I'm hard core, baby.
If I weren't tired from jet lag and facing four more lectures to write, I'd regale you with witty anecdotes from the plane trip here. Like, how I couldn't get past level 18 of the Caveman video game that Swissair provides to keep you from getting any sleep at all during the flight. Those damn red mammoths kept catching me.
Friday, May 06, 2005
We're in the midst of the University of Chicago's famed Scav Hunt, in which teams of energetic, creative, and sleep-deprived undergraduates scour the universe for all sorts of unusual objects. (The link is correct, trust me.) This year the hunt is being blogged by Connor Cyone, and the list of items can be found here (pdf). And yes, as Will Baude mentions, I do make an appearance in item 48: "Retrieve information from a black hole. Must be Sean Carroll certified. [4 points]" Consequently, I have been asked by three different teams to certify that they have indeed extracted information from a black hole, just like Hawking says we can. Accommodating soul that I am, I readily signed my name to various pieces of paper that can now be used to discredit me in the future. All for a good cause.
No more teams are likely to find me, as I am off to Geneva to spend the week at CERN giving lectures on cosmology. Do they have the Internets in Europe? Perhaps I will check in.
Thursday, May 05, 2005
Reading and writing
So, I think we set a record for visitors to Preposterous yesterday. Mark also noticed that even his blog got a lot more visitors than usual. From this we derive an obvious lesson: if you want to generate traffic, you should write about me. (Not "yourself," you understand -- you should write about me, Sean.)
Seriously, I am overwhelmed by the outpouring of supportive comments. They mean a lot to me. But I do want to clarify one point. When I mentioned that blogging will be a low priority, nobody should read that as "while I drink heavily and wallow in self-pity." (Self-pity will not be involved.) Rather, it's "since I don't have much time while I scramble to get some other things done." Perhaps I am simply in an early, denial-based phase, but at the moment I am in no danger at all of questioning myself. I am questioning the judgment of some people, but not of myself. Hopefully I will soon find time to write the posts I have in mind on wormholes, amateurs, string theory, and co-evolutionary learning. (Those are separate posts, not one big one -- although that would be fun.)
In the meantime, I understand there are other blogs out there. All the ones on the blogroll are written by witty and charismatic thinkers, I encourage you to visit. (To pick two at not-quite-random, Shakespeare's Sister and Ezra Klein are a couple I should be linking to much more often.) And don't forget the "next blog" button in the top right corner, which is a source of constant delight. Today I discovered Sharon Spotbottom, which has some interesting and provocative cartoons. But it will be hard to beat my all-time favorite, the Bean Bag Blog.
Tuesday, May 03, 2005
So the bad news is
The bad news is that I've been denied tenure at Chicago. It came as a complete surprise, I hadn't anticipated any problems at all. But apparently there are a few of our faculty who don't think much of my research. A stylistic clash, I imagine. And a handful of dissenters is all it takes to derail a tenure case. I don't think there are many people in the outside world who believe that the University of Chicago is better off without me than with me, but there seems to be an anomalously high concentration of them among my own colleagues.
So now I am on the job market again. Which is sad, both because of the intrinsically demoralizing nature of the job market, and because I cannot tell you how much I love this city and the friends I have made here. It truly feels like home to me. But I'm hopeful of getting a position at some other great place and flourishing there -- doing well is the best revenge.
In the meantime, though, blogging will likely be a low priority. I'm not going to stop, but my former ambition to put something up every day (no matter how lame) is going to be set aside as I concentrate on other things.
Further updates as events warrant.
Monday, May 02, 2005
You only ever need one time traveler convention. Because, of course, future time travelers can find out about it, and then come back in time to attend. The trick is publicity. So I am hereby doing my part, secure in the knowledge that Preposterous Universe will last for millennia, at least in archive form.
(Okay, I have to admit that this is somewhat bogus. A real time machine, i.e. a closed timelike path through spacetime, would only ever be able to take you back to the moment when it was originally created, not into the pre-existing past. So the convention will only work if someone has already built a time machine. But who knows?)
A while back Scott Hughes pointed me to the web page of the Alternative Cosmology Group. (Scott, what did I ever do to you?) These are folks who don't really believe in the Big Bang model. The Big Bang is simply the idea that we live in a universe which is nearly homogeneous and isotropic, and has been expanding from a hot, dense state for the last several billion years. Evidence for this model is overwhelming, starting with the fundamental successes of the Hubble Law (distance proportional to velocity for nearby galaxies), the existence of the cosmic microwave background radiation (a relic from the early hot state), and the primordial abundance of light elements (a signature of nucleosynthesis when the universe was about a minute old). More recently, specific models within the Big Bang framework have scored fantastic empirical successes at explaining anisotropies in the microwave background, the characteristics of large-scale structures, the age of the universe, and so on. And patient experts continue to slap down various proposed alternatives. Still, there are doubters. Remind you of any other famously successful scientific theories?
It's fun to go through the introductory paragraph of the Alternative Cosmology Group web site, searching for true statements. Fun, but not especially rewarding.
The Alternative Cosmology Group (ACG) was initiated with the Open Letter on Cosmology written to the scientific community and published in New Scientist, May 22, 2004.Hey, that one's true! The ACG was initiated with that letter. As far as I know, anyway. (It's all downhill from here.)
The letter points to the fundamental problems of the Big Bang theory, and to the unjustified limiting of cosmological funding to work within the Big Bang framework.No, it doesn't, since the problems are not fundamental, and the limiting is perfectly justified. We're short of funding as it is; why spend money on theories that have been disproven?
The epicyclic character of the theory, piling ad-hoc hypothesis upon hypothesis, its incompleteness and the appearance of a singularity in the big bang universe beginning require consideration of alternatives.No, they don't. Various hypotheses may or may not be ad-hoc, but they are simply required to fit the data. We should certainly be looking for ways to go beyond the currently favored version of the Big Bang model by reducing the number of hypotheses, and tying up some of the loose ends, but any such theory will simply be an improved version of the model. You won't replace the fact that the universe is expanding from an initial hot, dense state.
This has become particularly necessary with the increasing number of observations that contradict the theory's predictions.No, it hasn't, since there are no such observations.
Big Bang cosmology has been in a crisis since the early 90's when the Cold Dark Matter model began to fail.No, it hasn't. The most restrictive possible version of the "Cold Dark Matter Model," in which there was a critical density of matter particles, was indeed in trouble by the early 90's. Those troubles were resolved in 1998 when it was discovered that the universe is accelerating, implying the existence of dark energy. The "Standard CDM" model was swiftly replaced by the "Lambda-CDM" model (Lambda standing for the cosmological constant), and problems with structure formation and the age of the universe were resolved in one fell swoop. The Big Bang model itself, of course, was never in trouble at all. (A persistent error on the part of critics is to confuse particular scenarios within the Big Bang framework with the framework itself.)
Fifteen years later, this crisis has worsened, despite the addition of dark energy.No, it hasn't. To the extent that it ever existed, it has gone away. Dark energy, like it or not, keeps being verified by new and independent measurements.
Observations fail to show the dramatic differences between the high-redshift and local universe required by the Big Bang theory.No, they don't. This is obviously false. What are they thinking?
We still find normal galaxies, heavy elements, strings and clusters of galaxies at the further and further shifting outskirts of the observable universe.No, we don't. Of course, it is hard to make precise measurements of ultra-distant objects, but to the extent that we can, they look different than nearby objects. Galaxies look different, elemental abundances look different, the density of various objects looks different, everything you would expect in an evolving universe.
The anisotropy of the cosmic background radiation, the existence of very large-scale structures, the cosmic anisotropy to electromagnetic wave propagation are among many observations that contradict Big Bang expectations.No, they aren't. The first of these two phenomena are manifestly consistent with the Big Bang, and the third one doesn't exist.
At the same time, non-Big Bang alternatives have increasingly shown promise to coherently explain the observations and to predict new phenomena.No, they haven't. It would be more accurate to say "non-Big-Bang alternatives have continued to make no new correct predictions, while remaining inconsistent with well-established laws of physics."
We believe, therefore, that a shift in effort in cosmology to these alternatives is essential if the field is to advance.Yes, you do believe that! But it's not true. So only half credit there.
The good news is, the crackpots are planning to get together at a conference. I am sure it will be an entertaining event. The thing about crackpots is, they are usually not mutually self-reinforcing; there are a potentially infinite number of directions in which one can be idiosyncratically mistaken, and crackpottery tends to diffuse through the space. So they aren't likely to be happy with one another's ideas. But at least they will be able to take refuge in a common feeling of persecution by the all-powerful Big Bang Establishment.
Sunday, May 01, 2005
Best blog post title ever?
My latest nominee would be from Scott Lemieux at Lawyers, Guns and Money (which by itself is in the running for best blog title ever): "Life: It's the Period Before You're Born and After You're Vegetative". There's some good content there, too.
See also Bitch, Ph.D. for more on the young girl who is already more articulate and sensible (not to mention courageous) than any of our nation's important politicians.