Preposterous Universe

Tuesday, November 30, 2004
Sentences you won't hear me say very often

"Here's a very nice post at the Volokh Conspiracy consisting almost entirely of a quote from George Will."
The filibuster is an important defense of minority rights, enabling democratic government to measure and respect not merely numbers but also intensity in public controversies. Filibusters enable intense minorities to slow the governmental juggernaut. Conservatives, who do not think government is sufficiently inhibited, should cherish this blocking mechanism. And someone should puncture Republicans' current triumphalism by reminding them that someday they will again be in the minority.
In case you might be tempted to give too much credit to Will for his sensible level-headedness, check Brian Leiter on academic diversity.

A reason to join the American Astronomical Society

Finally a good motivation for joining the AAS -- Robert Kirshner's "President's Column" in the monthly newsletter. The newsletter is only available to AAS members, since we wouldn't want all the secret goodies in there leaking out to the unwashed masses. Normally this is no great loss. But since Kirshner has become president, the monthly column has become a highlight.

Here at Preposterous we toil thanklessly for the greater good, so we might just make it a regular feature to excerpt some of Bob's best quotes. Last month the topic was the process by which NASA decides to make the wrong choices (as revisited in Risa's last post). This month it's about the connection between astronomy and physics. Here are the opening few paragraphs:
Everybody has this happen to them -- you're sitting on an airplane, headed for the AAS meeting or an observing run or a windowless room at NASA headquarters when a stranger sits down in the seat next to you. You're revising a manuscript (changing "affect" to "effect" or the other way around), or writing a referee report ("this paper contains too few references to the pioneering work of the anonymous referee"), or browsing through the AJ ("this paper is pretty good, I wonder if I'm a co-author.") The person next to you, picking up on these subtle cues, asks, "What do you do?" Here you must make a quick judgment. Do you want to talk to this person?

If your answer is yes, then you say, "I'm an astronomer" and you can be sure your neighbor will pick up that thread -- possibly asking for a personal horoscope, possibly asking you for insider information on that satellite that landed so firmly in Utah, and possibly asking if the dark energy is really the cosmological constant. In any case, both time and the airplane will fly.

On the other hand, if the idea of talking to this stranger ("outreach" in NSF-speak) is less appealing than having three hours of root canal work, you just say, "I'm a physicist." Somehow, that always produces a social retreat, leaving you in your own cocoon of noise-cancellation to compose letters of recommendation that skirt the inside edge of perjury.
Well, the rest is just as good, but I'd hate to have the notorious AAS lawyers come after me. (I'll have to encourage Bob to start up his own blog, perhaps once this AAS presidency is over.) The point is that there is not a sharp line telling us where astronomy ends and physics takes over, or vice-versa. Some of the most important questions at the heart of each discipline are right there in the heart of the other -- biologically difficult to manage, but metaphorically quite manageable.

Of course such a claim sounds so cliched and feel-good as to almost not be worth mentioning on a cutting-edge blog such as this one. However, it remains true that the categories of "astronomy" and "physics" are quite reified in the worlds of funding agencies and university departments, and this can often be a source of trouble. If I were a gossip, I could tell many stories of visiting places on my job searches and being asked, "Sure, we know you dabble in gravity, and astrophysics, and field theory -- but what are you really?" One of the nice things about the University of Chicago is that the barriers between the fields are remarkably low, but other places aren't so lucky. At Harvard, where Bob Kirshner was the department chair when the Astronomy Department grudgingly awarded me a Ph.D. for work on "Cosmological Consequences of Topological and Geometric Phenomena in Field Theories," there is a fifteen-minute walk through the snow to get from the Physics Department to the Observatory, and it's not a very beaten path. They're making an effort, though, so I wish them luck.

Monday, November 29, 2004

Scandinavia seems like such a peaceful place. Maybe they got all the lust for violence out of their system with the whole Viking thing; or maybe it's still there, just bubbling below the surface, invisible to an outsider like me.

Returning to reality, and taking a quick tour around the news and the blogs, uncovers too many sad stories and reasons for disgust to really keep track of. Here's a little list, so you can choose to target your outrage according to your geo-political predilections. No claim is made to being exhaustive.

So much older then

I'm back from Sweden, and twelve hours of sleep later I'm more or less ready to resume the struggle. Thanks to Risa for helping out, and coming close to setting the record for most-commented-on post!

Just before I left my phone rang, and on the other end was a woman with a pleasant English accent. "Hi, I'm calling from the journal Nature." Hi, what can I do for you. "We're working on a feature story about young theoretical physicists who are making an impact." Well, of course I'm always happy to help out such a prestigious publication. "So, do you know any?" Oh. "Um, perhaps I should explain, we are limiting the scope of 'young' to include only people who are thirty-five or less. So I believe you are over the cutoff, is that right?" Yes, I suppose that's right.

So there you have it -- objective proof that I have left the ranks of the youthful and nimble and joined those of the stodgy middle-aged. I'm trying to figure out some way to turn this to my advantage. Perhaps a crisis is in order. I'm thinking a nice cherry-red sports car might just ease the pain.

Saturday, November 27, 2004
Fly me to the Moon (and then Mars)

Just caught this article at the New York Times:

NASA Chief Sees Mandate for Bush Space Program

The budget increase Congress just voted for NASA is a clear endorsement of President Bush's plan to send astronauts back to the moon and later Mars, the head of the space agency said Tuesday.

Sean O'Keefe, the NASA administrator, said the budget victory over the weekend was "as strong an endorsement as anyone could have hoped" for the national space policy outlined by the president in January, which involves finishing the space station, retiring the shuttle fleet and refocusing the program on exploration.

"This is a great day," he said. "It's a good start."
Now, much as I'm in favor of increased funding for NASA (they pay my salary!), if the increase in funding is actually a resounding endorsement for the President's Moon-Mars plan, that's not good news for science. I suppose there's a chance that the president's motivation for this initiative is really the spirit of exploring the Universe, but I think it's likely that at least some of the motivation is a bit less pure.

There just isn't, at present, a compelling scientific justification for such the extremly risky and expensive operation of sending humans to Mars. NASA has done fabulous work over the last two decades with very successful robotic missions and space telescopes. Many of these programs have already been scaled back or delayed, because of resource shifts to the Moon-Mars program. NASA's recent sucesses have been based on consensus reports from National Academy committees on what its scientific priorities should be, and in some cases NASA has already shifted away from these priorties because of the new Moon-Mars plans.

The American Physical Society put out a press release and a report this week, outlining their concerns. I hope NASA and the Administration take them seriously.

Friday, November 26, 2004
Just a lot of allegations

Happy Thanksgiving to all. It seems I was a bit too optimistic about my ability to find the time to guest-blog while traveling (to three different cities -- DC, Baltimore & New York -- in the 3 days before Thanksgiving), so I hope you all have survived without Preposterous Universe this week. I did manage to find time to see the new Museum of the American Indian in Washington DC this past weekend, which is really quite wonderful. Highly recommended.

Although the holidays have slowed down the US news cycle a bit over the past couple of days, not to worry -- our fearless twice-"elected" president hasn't slowed down with the irony, responding to recent events in the Ukraine:
President Bush, in Crawford, Tex., said, "There's just a lot of allegations of vote fraud that placed their election - the validity of their elections in doubt."
Yeah. Their elections aren't the only ones whose validity is still in doubt.

As someone who has been expressing concern about the integrity of the US voting system for the past 3 years or so, I'm pleased at the very least to see a bit of mainstream coverage of the numerous problems that were clearly present in the 2004 election (whether or not they would have changed the final outcome). The Baltimore Sun ran an editiorial today:
MOST MAINSTREAM newspapers have already dismissed stories of voting fraud and voting rights violations in the November election as baseless or irrelevant. Sen. John Kerry's concession is supposed to demonstrate that there is no story here. Give up, go home, it's all over.

But it's not over.

The legitimacy of our democratic process is an issue more important than Mr. Kerry's future or the results of 2004. That legitimacy has been called into question repeatedly over the past few weeks, and doubts will linger as long as credible indications of error, negligence, disenfranchisement and fraud are not addressed.

We would like to believe that voting irregularities were identified and corrected, that participants fulfilled their duties appropriately, that the machines performed reliably and that the total discrepancy between voter intention and recorded results was less than the margin of victory in relevant contests.

But that conclusion must be reached on the basis of evidence, not blind faith.

How can we expect voters - especially young, disadvantaged or newly registered voters - to have faith in our voting system? How can we expect our allies to take seriously U.S. efforts to hold elections in Iraq and elsewhere? How can we be confident that the most fundamental principles of American democracy - one person, one vote; rule by the people; transparency in government - are not in jeopardy?

American legitimacy demands that the news media, the parties and all political leaders take seriously the challenges presented by the 2004 election: We need an audit of the election process, validation of the election results and corrective measures to ensure the legitimacy of future elections.

No reasonable argument can be offered against disclosure and accountability. We can afford whatever expense, inconvenience, distraction and possible embarrassment may be caused by an election audit and congressional investigation. What we cannot afford are unresolved doubts about the legitimacy of our democratic government.

Thanks to pressure from Representatives Holt, Conyers, Nadler, Wexler and others, the GAO is now investigating irregularities in the Nov 2 vote. But that is very unlikely to go far enough. Here's a good first list of things that should be done. Pressure your Representatives to do something about it.

Sunday, November 21, 2004
On Hobbits and the Reality-Based Community

After a month of astonishing new findings about our hobbit cousins and early Americans and our most recent common ancestor with the Great Apes, Gallup has a new poll out on what Americans think about the "theory" of evolution. Here's the first question they asked:
Just your opinion, do you think that Charles Darwin's theory of evolution is [ROTATED: a scientific theory that has been well-supported by evidence, (or) just one of many theories and onethat has not been well-supported by evidence], or don't you know enough about it to say?
The answers have essentially been unchanged since they started asking this question 22 years ago : 35% believe it is supported my evidence, 35% believe it is not supported by evidence, and 29% don't know enough to say.

They asked a related question, for which the numbers are just as disturbing: Forty-five percent of Americans believe that God created man in his present form about 10,000 years ago, 38 percent think that man developed over time but God was guiding the whole thing, and a mere thirteen percent of us think God just had nothing to do with the thing.

And then one last question, of course on Biblical literalism: 34% of the country thinks that the Bible is the actual word of God and should be taken literally, 48% thinks its the inspired word of God but not everything in it should be taken literally, and just 15% think the Bible is an ancient book of "fables, legends, history, and moral precepts recorded by man".

Gallup then does a helpful breakdown of the correlation between these last two questions. A full 54% of the American population either believes that the bible is the literal word of God, or believes that humans were created in their present form 10,000 years ago (or both). We are really talking about much, much more than just evolution here. To me this indicates that a majority of Americans do not live in the "reality based" community. This is something to be deeply worried about, and not just because I think that knowing something about the origins of humanity and the planet and the cosmos are important questions. This is pure speculation, but I'm guessing this 54%, is highly correlated with the 44% of Americans that think, all evidence to the contrary, that things are going well for the US in Iraq (90% of whom voted for Bush). But let's break down the numbers a bit more...

Twenty-five percent of Americans are both biblical literalists and believe that humans were created in present form 10,000 years ago. These people think that the Grand Canyon was created in Noah's flood and that dinosaurs coexisted with humans. Really, we should just give up on these folks now. These are the same people who think God is currently in the White House.

Nine percent of Americans are biblical literalists but do not believe humans were created in present form 10,000 years ago. Presumably, these folks are either confused what the world literal means, or they have one of these "day is not really a day" arguments, and can deal with the timescale thing but still don't really buy the details of our current scientific understanding of evolution. For example, I once met a Jewish biblical literalist in an airport bar who thought evolution was all hooey but that the Big Bang was just fine because anything could have happened before Adam and Eve left the Garden of Eden -- it was a place where time had no meaning (sort of like the answer I give when people ask "What was before the Big Bang?")

More interesting, however, are the 20% of the population that are not biblical literalists, but still believe that humans were created in their present form 10,000 years ago. And, we don't get the detailed breakdown, but Gallup tells us that most of these people are 18-to-29 year olds.

Clearly scientific education in this country is desparately failing us. And this is relevant to policy. It's not just scientific understanding here that I'm concerned about. The most disturbing thing, out of all of the many disturbing things that this administration has done in the past 4 years, has been their consistent demonstration that they are not interested in empirical reality. From that same NYT Magazine Suskind article, there's a quote from Christy Todd Whitman saying ''In meetings, I'd ask if there were any facts to support our case. And for that, I was accused of disloyalty!'' But why should they be interested in it? The basic belief of the "reality-based" community, that "solutions emerge from... judicious study of discernible reality" seems not to be shared by a large fraction of Americans. If most Americans don't accept science as the best way to explain the origin of the universe and life, it's not clear why we should expect them to be convinced by scientific studies that show abstinence-only education is not effective in preventing unwanted pregnancies and abortions, or even why we should expect them to be interested in empirical evidence about whether tax cuts for the rich help stimulate the economy or in empirical evidence about whether torturing people helps our security.

To do something to change the minds of that 20% on evolution, we should pay attention to the fact that people who believe dinosaurs still roam the earth keep running people for school boards, and we'd better oppose them. But that's really only the tip of the problem.

UPDATE: Just noticed that Chris Bowers at mydd.com has commented on the same thing, with a very helpful chart comparing American's belief in biblical literalism and evolution with other countries (Hint: Western Europe seems to be doing better with the whole embrace of modernity thing).

Saturday, November 20, 2004
Even spacetime is big in Texas

I'm still at the Philosophy of Science Association meeting in Austin, where I have thus far been foiled in my attempts to buy a PSA T-shirt. The other disappointment was that I arrived too late to hear a plenary talk by Steven Weinberg. But otherwise it's been going well. We had a fun little session yesterday on the dimensionality of space. Craig Callender from UCSD gave an overview of various attempts to "prove" that space must be three-dimensional. Apparently it was Immanuel Kant who first tried to use Gauss's Law to show that space must be three-dimensional. That seems a little backwards to us today, since you have to assume that gravity has a 1/r2 force law to do it; it seems more sensible to derive the force law from the dimensionality rather than the other way around. (I also learned that Newton calculated how elliptical orbits would precess if the force law wasn't precisely 1/r2, a fact that later gained significance as a proof of general relativity.) Then there are crazier proofs based on the anthropic principle. An example (which Craig didn't use) that I originally heard from Mark Wise is the "tying your shoes argument" -- in more than three spatial dimensions, there's no such thing as a knot, so it wouldn't be possible to keep your shoes from falling off, which makes civilization very difficult. I pointed out to Mark that this also ruled out fewer than three dimensions, so it's a pretty powerful argument. Perhaps you could use 2-branes to keep your shoes on, though. I'll have some of my grad students look into it.

Another talk was by Nick Huggett and David Hilbert (no, not that Hilbert) of the University of Illinois at Chicago on perceptions of three dimensions. This talk started with some abstract ideas from Poincare, and slid into an empirical psychological study of how three-dimensionality is ingrained into our brains. Not hard-wired, though; Linda Henderson in the audience mentioned an experiment in which subjects were trained to think in four-dimensional intuition. I personally wouldn't classify these issues as philosophy, but as psychology, since they involve empirical investigations of how the mind actually works. Of course there is a good question about whether philosophy is really a science; to me the answer is clearly "no." Science is about constructing models and trying to fit them to the world, using empirical data to decide which models are better than others. (Glossing over some details here.) Philosophy includes the stuff that is non-empirical, although there is obviously a great deal of connection. Moral philosophy and logic are fine examples of disciplines that are just not science at all. Indeed, philosophy of science is not a science (although sociology of science is). It's okay not to be a science! Some of my best friends are non-scientists.

My own talk was on the good reasons we have for suspecting that there may be more than three dimensions of space. I didn't say anything new; the argument was basically that we need to quantize gravity, string theory is our best current hope for a quantum theory of gravity, and string theory predicts the existence of extra dimensions. Of course, all of these statements are controversial, even if not "new." If Peter were there, I suspect he would have disagreed with the statement that string theory is our best hope for quantizing gravity. To me, it clearly is, and I've been hoping for a while to sit down and type out a clear exposition of why I think so. But I would first want to talk more generally about quantum gravity and stuff, and right now I have to go to Sweden! Happy Thanksgiving; you'll be in Risa's competent hands while I'm gone.

Oddone to direct Fermilab

After a long search, the new director of Fermilab will be Pier Oddone, currently deputy director of Lawrence Berkely Labs. Oddone is an experimentalist, and the originator of the idea of asymmetric B-factories to study CP violation; two such facilities have since been built at SLAC in California and at KEK in Japan.

According to the news reports, Oddone seems to be in favor of an aggressive push to keep Fermilab moving forward in particle physics:
Oddone, 60, takes the helm of the laboratory at a critical time in energy research. Although Fermi remains the top high-energy physics lab in the world, it is expected to be surpassed by a European facility in three years.

To ensure the lab's survival and staffing levels, Oddone said Fermi will need to market itself to either run the next big energy facility or create a niche market for new research using the lab's current neutrino experiments. Neutrinos are one of the least understood components of the universe. They are similar to electrons but lack an electric charge.

Even with current changes at the U.S. Department of Energy, Fermi will continue to get backing to move forward on either project, said Robin Staffin, director of the office of high energy physics and office of science at the DOE.

"Fermilab plays a major, very important role in the department's high-energy physics," he said. "We certainly expect that to continue."
That's good news, it's just what the field and Fermilab need.

Thursday, November 18, 2004
A new kind of science center

I'm in sunny Orlando with my friends from Project Exploration, who had previously fed me and brought me along on dinosaur expeditions. (It's good to pick the right friends.) Why are we here, you ask? PE has already established a great track record at working with kids and getting them interested in science, but they have grand ambitions to grow far beyond their current presence. In particular, they are planning to build an exploration center that would serve as some sort of hybrid between a science museum, action park, and research facility. (Still working on what to actually call it.) Part of the philosophy is to go beyond just showing people the wonders of science, and to engage them interactively with the process by which science is actually done. They want to demystify science and help children appreciate that this is an adventure they can all be part of.

One of the first steps in the process of making this real (besides negotiating with the city of Chicago to snag a great location, which is also ongoing) is to brainstorm about what such a place might be and what it might contain. So here we are at Design Island, where we're having a Charette to develop ideas for the project. "Charette," as I have learned, is jargon for a brainstorming session. (The term evolved from 19th-century students at the Ecole Des Beaux-Arts, rushing their projects around in a cart called a charette.) We have certain parameters in terms of space, and a far-reaching agenda about what we want to do with it -- exhibits that are interactive and educational, opportunities for visitors to interact with working scientists, space for lectures and announcements of exciting results, research laboratories, an open science library, and all the usual extras. So we're bouncing around ideas about nature walks and virtual reality and animatronic dinosaurs. We want the experience to be different than you get at a typical museum -- less about the shiny and impressive final products, and more about the messy reality. In the meantime I'm having a great time experiencing a very different messy reality; in the next five years or so we'll get to see how it all turns out.

Wednesday, November 17, 2004
Just another murder in Iraq

In case anyone was wondering what kind of barbaric inhumanity is operating under the rubric of Islamic fundamentalism, we have the murder of Margaret Hassan.

Hassan, Irish by birth, married an Iraqi man more than three decades ago, and had devoted her life to providing aid and comfort to the people of her adopted country -- first during the tribulations of Saddam's regime, and then through the difficulties of the recent war. One month ago she was kidnapped by an unknown group on her way to work at Care International. A hue and cry was raised by her many supporters throughout Baghdad, where billboards with pictures of Hassan were posted throughout the city, asking for information about her whereabouts. But Al-Jazeera has now aired a video of a hooded man shooting a blindfolded woman in the head; authorities claim that the woman is Hassan. Just one in a long line of innocent dead people.

And, again just to be clear: no, incidents like this do not justify the war in Iraq. Precisely the opposite; the war has stimulated incidents like this, not prevented them. The obvious culpability of Hassan's killers doesn't excuse the obvious stupidity of the war she found herself in the middle of. Instead of fighting terrorism and fundamentalism, we fought a misguided campaign against an ugly but contained secular state, and thereby gave the terrorists a new theater in which to operate and endless new material for their recruiting brochures. Young angry Arabs aren't seeing the video of Margaret Hassan's execution, they're seeing a scared Marine killing a defenseless Iraqi cowering in a corner. (The Marine's actions were in flagrant violations of the laws of war, but to be honest I can't judge him; who knows how I would act if I were being ambushed and shot at in a hostile country.) We're going to be dealing with the horrific fallout of this monumental screw-up for generations to come. What a stupid useless disgusting mess.

Tuesday, November 16, 2004
World Community Grid

The SETI@home people were first, but the idea is catching on: harness the computing power of the world's home computers for some greater good. The latest example is the World Community Grid, which proposes to use all that excess computing power to study drug research, protein folding, and other complex problems. From a story on Yahoo:
NEW YORK (Reuters) - IBM and top scientific research organizations are joining forces in a humanitarian effort to tap the unused power of millions of computers and help solve complex social problems.

The World Community Grid will seek to tap the vast underutilized power of computers belonging to individuals and businesses worldwide and channel it into selected medical and environmental research programs.

Volunteers will be asked to download a program to their computers that runs when the machine is idle and reaches out to request data to contribute to research projects.

Organizers say the Grid can help unlock genetic codes that underlie diseases like AIDS (news - web sites) and HIV (news - web sites), Alzheimer's or cancer, improve forecasting of natural disasters and aid studies to protect the world's food and water supply.
Soon enough, donating your spare CPU cycles will be a deep decision that everyone will have to make, just like donating to charity. Don't forget Einstein@Home!

Monday, November 15, 2004
Guest-blogger Risa

I'm about to embark on one of these insane travel jaunts again. Wednesday and Thursday in Orlando, Florida, home of Disney World. Which is where I'll be, but for semi-work-related reasons. Then to Austin, Texas, a tiny patch of blue in a giant field of red. I won't be visiting UT, though; I'll be going to the annual meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association. We have a little session on Friday afternoon on "The Dimensions of Space." I'll be arguing that there are more than three, we just don't know it yet. Then next week it's to Sweden, to give a couple of colloquia and maybe check out an aurora or two. (It's a good life, I admit it.)

One presumes that they have internet access even in Bush-controlled states like Florida and Texas, so blogging will hopefully continue unimpeded. But who knows what it's like in a sclerotic European economy such as Sweden. So next week we'll have another guest-blogger for you, Chicago's own Risa Wechsler. Regular Preposterous readers will recognize Risa as the silver medalist in our poker tournament for Kerry. But her day job is as a cosmologist at the Kavli Institute for Cosmological Physics, and she has strong political commitments. In other words, ideally qualified to carry on this little blog's usual preoccupations.

How and why Dr. Keyes won in Illinois

By Helen Valois.
"It's great about Bush getting re-elected," my conservative friends have been saying to me these days, "but, hey! You must be bummed about Keyes' big loss in Illinois."

"What 'loss'?" runs my somewhat testy reply.

"The one where he got, like, a quarter of the vote."

"That," I inform them, "was a loss for Illinois, and for the Republican Party, and for the country as a whole, not for Dr. Keyes."
A true genius is being shown here for always looking at the bright side of life. Liberals have a lot to learn from these folks. John Kerry gets the second-largest popular vote total of any Presidential candidate ever, and people want to turn the Democratic party inside out in an effort to cobble together two more percentage points. Alan Keyes stumbles to a defeat of historic proportions, and his supporters declare victory.

Sunday, November 14, 2004
A handy finding-chart

Normally, being a light-rather-than-heat kind of guy, I can resist the temptation to link to red-state bashing (like, say, Jane Smiley's Slate essay). But this isn't bashing, it's just a map! Raw data in easily digested graphical form, completely free of ideological influence. Tim Lambert has noticed that the THES list of the world's top universities is dominated by U.S. institutions, and has produced a handy guide for locating where they are.

Of course, if David Horowitz has his way and unqualified conservatives are legislated into university positions, maybe we can even things out by removing top-ranked universities from the U.S. entirely.

Saturday, November 13, 2004
I can see through your masks

From Body and Soul, another example of those people who hate our freedom.
BOULDER, Colo., Nov. 12, 2004 — Parents and students say they are outraged and offended by a proposed band name and song scheduled for a high school talent show in Boulder this evening, but members of the band, named Coalition of the Willing, said the whole thing is being blown out of proportion.

The students told ABC News affiliate KMGH-TV in Denver they are performing Bob Dylan's song "Masters of War" during the Boulder High School Talent Exposé because they are Dylan fans. They said they want to express their views and show off their musical abilities.

But some students and adults who heard the band rehearse called a radio talk show Thursday morning, saying the song the band sang ended with a call for President Bush to die.

Threatening the president is a federal crime, so the Secret Service was called to the school to investigate.

Students in the band said they're just singing the lyrics and not inciting anyone to do anything.

The 1963 song ends with the lyrics: "You might say that I'm young. You might say I'm unlearned, but there's one thing I know, though I'm younger than you, even Jesus would never forgive what you do … And I hope that you die and your death'll come soon. I will follow your casket in the pale afternoon. And I'll watch while you're lowered down to your deathbed. And I'll stand o'er your grave 'til I'm sure that you're dead."
All I want to say is: "Coalition of the Willing" is an awesome name for a band.

Update: The post at Body and Soul seems to have disappeared. But I notice that Kevin Drum has almost exactly the same take that I do, and almost simultaneously. (He beat me to it, but he's a professional.)

Friday, November 12, 2004
Freepin' notoriety

And here I thought the comments at Fark.com on our arrow-of-time paper were a little lowbrow. Why didn't anybody tell me there was also a long thread over at the Free Republic? This comment was pretty good:
Okay, I'm no physicist, but I maintain that time does not exist. It is an artificial construct of man that simply represents the number of ticks from a clock. Somebody prove me wrong.
But here's my favorite:
"Scientists blah blah blah, blah blah blah, blah blah-blah, blah-blah-blah..."

Well, to quote Opus, "Research physicists need Porsches too". You can bet this article will help pull in that federal NSF grant money. Which, unfortunately, is often the whole point of the exercise. As soon as someone comes up with a new wrinkle in elementary particle physics, all the cosmologist's theories will go out the window anyway. But the grant money, that will just keep on flowing. Sort of like time.
From where, exactly, did the stereotype spring about theoretical physicists being all in it for the money? And dammit, where's my Porsche?

Thursday, November 11, 2004
Lecturing to the choir

In the course of giving numerous presentations to the public on exciting ideas in modern cosmology, eventually someone is going to ask you about how God fits into the picture. It's not obvious how to answer; this is the kind of thing cosmologists love to argue about at coffee breaks during conferences.

Of course, the first problem is what is the "right" answer, in terms of what the speaker actually believes. For me that's easy; I think the notion of God is an outdated fiction. (I understand that not everyone agrees.) But it doesn't obviously follow that you need to be so blunt to your audience. An argument could certainly be made that, if you were speaking to a polite group of people whom you knew to be religious, you might not want to distract from the purely scientific message by turning them against you with your godless atheism. This isn't to say you should be dishonest, but simply polite; there is no law of human interaction saying that we have to tell the full truth about every issue at every possible opportunity. (If there were, everyone in the world would be single.)

But increasingly I'm coming to believe that directness is the best policy when it comes to God and the universe. I will illustrate this unscientifically by a story. Some time back I visited DePauw University, a very religious Midwestern institution, to give an invited talk on cosmology and atheism. So, I was in a context where the issues couldn't be avoided; but I tried to defuse the situation by being friendly and non-confrontational, and was generally afforded a very polite reception (by these people who didn't believe a word I was saying).

It was after the talk that I learned something important. Several people came up to ask questions or simply make a comment, all of them unfailingly friendly. But one young woman in particular was very effusive in her thankfulness for the talk I had just given. It turns out that she was an undergraduate student there. As she explained it, for a long time she had been having doubts about religion and the existence of God, but had been reluctant to talk to anyone about them on this devoutly Methodist campus. She said that hearing my talk had been a revelation for her, as it put into words many of the ideas that had been floating around in her head. More importantly, it gave her courage to hear someone actually stand up and say them out loud in a public forum.

Usually my cosmology talks don't have such a dramatic effect on people. I guess the point is that we can worry so much about being polite to the people we disagree with, that we can shortchange the people who want to agree with us if we would only put our best arguments forward. I don't ever mention religion when I am giving pure science talks, but from now on I will be less reluctant to give blunt answers when someone asks me about it afterwards.

Wednesday, November 10, 2004
Middleweight black hole

We've known for a long time that the center of our galaxy harbors a supermassive black hole, perhaps two million times the mass of the Sun. (Still only a very tiny part of the galaxy, which is perhaps one hundred billion times the mass of the Sun.) There are different pieces of evidence in favor of this, all of which come down to mapping out a gravitational field that implies a huge mass in a small area, without seeing the radiation you would expect if the object weren't a black hole. You can even see time-lapse movies of stars orbiting the black hole. These days we suspect that most large spiral galaxies contain such black holes at their center, and in earlier days these black holes were powering quasars or active galactic nuclei.

Now scientists have found another black hole near the galactic center, much smaller than the first but still big -- about a thousand solar masses. Careful observations resolved a single blob into a cluster of a few individual stars zipping around this black hole. The size is especially intriguing, as it is "intermediate-mass" -- not just a few solar masses, as you might get from the explosion of a massive star, nor a million solar masses, as you find at the center of large galaxies. Not surprising that such objects could form by having smaller holes gradually accumulate mass in very dense environments, but it's good to see it directly.

Small and intermediate black holes will occasionally spiral into supermassive black holes, giving off gravitational radiation. This will be a primary target for next-generation gravitational-wave observatories, like the LISA satellite. This particular black hole is in no danger of inspiralling any time soon, but probably its cousins are common in other galaxies.

Tuesday, November 09, 2004
Vote now

Do what PZ says -- go to CNN and vote against creationism in their dopey online poll.


I'm jealous of Chris Mooney. It's one thing to needle the religious right, but it's a whole extra level of accomplishment to have them label you an "anti-Christian bigot."

The bigotry charge comes from the Coalition on Abortion/Breast Cancer, a group that fights against abortion on the grounds that it leads to an increased risk of cancer. It's a tough fight, since studies have shown that, well, it doesn't. But the rhetorical fight goes on, and the CABC has a clever strategy: they claim that the scientific studies indicating no link between abortion and cancer are just as bogus as those that failed to find a link between smoking and cancer, and even have invented the concept of "Big Abortion" in analogy with "Big Tobacco." (Because, as a doctor, performing abortions is your easy road to fabulous riches, I guess.) Then they will trot out pro-life scientists who will continue to flog the link against all evidence. Dress up the website in pink ribbons, and you're all set.

It's interesting to ask what kind of scientist would be moved by religious conviction to argue for a conclusion that the mainstream has long-ago dismissed; the parallels with the Intelligent Design movement are clear. That's what Chris has done, in an article for Washington Monthly. He examines how the religious right is increasingly pushing pseudo-scientific arguments to help advance a variety of its agendas, from campaigns against condoms to stem-cell research. It's a scary article, and well worth reading. These "scientists" begin with the conclusions they want to draw and only then construct a reasoning that will get them there; that's not how science is supposed to work. But as Chris says, it's an effective strategy:
All told, Christian conservatives have gone a long way towards creating their own scientific counter-establishment. Indeed, the religious right's "science" represents just the most recent manifestation of the gradual conservative Christian political awakening that has so dramatically shaped our politics over the past several decades. "They're saying that their faith is not just a pietistic private exercise, but that it has implications in the world of education, or politics, or the world of science," notes Michael Cromartie, an expert on the religious right at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. And by providing a scientific cover--albeit a thin one--for religiously-inspired policies, this appropriation of science has at least temporary benefits for groups seeking to promote them. After all, the scientific method is inherently open to abuse. Because it encourages open publication, continual challenges to the conventional wisdom, and a presumption of good faith on the part of researchers, those who would deliberately slant their interpretations or cherry-pick their facts find plenty of running room.
He also is careful to point out that there is no reason why someone can't be very religious and also an excellent scientist; there are countless good examples. But it's also possible for one's religious beliefs to derail one's scientific investigations. Pointing that out is not "bigotry," although it should be a badge of honor to be stuck with the label, considering the source. Congratulations, Chris!

Monday, November 08, 2004

Operation Migration is helping restore the whooping-crane population by an unusual strategy: using human pilots in ultralight planes to lead the cranes on their annual migration.

There are only two migratory wild flocks, one with about 200 birds and one with about 20. They are flying from Canada to Texas and from Wisconsin to Florida, respectively. (You don't think that cranes are Republicans, do you?)

Sunday, November 07, 2004
Vote tampering

I like to think I am a gracious loser, not a whiny sour-grapes conspiracy theorist. Which is why I'm hesitant to suggest that malicious tampering with the vote counts somehow contributed to Bush's win last Tuesday. But, at the very least, there is a significant pattern of irregularity going on, which should be cleared up if only for the sake of future elections.

We already know that one Ohio county gave Bush 3,800 extra votes, a mistake which has now been corrected. And there have been claims of systematic bias, some rather hysterical. But Brian Leiter points to a study that is provocative to say the least. The study compared the declared makeup of each Florida county in terms of registered Democrats and Republicans to the final votes. The results are startling -- a sizeable number of overwhelmingly Democratic counties, mostly smaller ones, where Bush came away with a big victory. Franklin county, 77% Democrat, went for Bush 3,472 to 2,400. Hamilton county, 79% Democrat, went for Bush 2,786 to 2,252. Holmes county, 73% Democrat, went for Bush 6,410 to 1,810. Lafayette county, 83% Democrat, went for Bush 2,460 to 845. Liberty county, where Democrats outnumber Republicans by 88% to 8%, went for Bush 1,927 to 1,070. And on and on.

Interestingly, all of the counties with these wild discrepancies between results and registrations have something in common -- they used optically-scanned ballots whose results were fed into a central PC. In counties where the much-maligned touch-screen voting method was used, the results conformed nicely to what the registrations would have you believe. I suppose the good news is that a recount should be straightforward in such counties -- although we all know how hard it is to get a recount done in this country.

The dramatic conclusion from this would be that there is a simple reason why the exit polls, which were indicating a substantial Kerry victory, deviated so dramatically from the final results -- they were right, the results weren't. (As Dick Morris says, "exit polls are almost never wrong.") But the minimum conclusion is that a grown-up civilized nation like the United States should be able to figure out how to count votes quickly, accurately, and verifiably. I would think that even the Republicans should be in favor making every effort to figure out what really happened, if only to shut up the sore losers once and for all.

Update: Blogging of the President has a list of links to other stories about possible tampering, including a very good piece by Keith Olbermann on how a story like this crosses from the blogosphere into the mainstream media. As I mention in the comments, I hope that there really wasn't any tampering going on; but there's every reason to investigate it as thoroughly as possible.

Update again: People who are more sophisticated than me (see, if I were sophisticated, it would be "than I") have pointed out that it's not really the results in small counties that are most problematic, as those can perhaps be explained by accidents of history creating misleading party registrations. But there is a discrepancy between the optically-scanned results and the touch-screen results even when you control for size of county. See also interesting commentary at Rhosgobel and Pharyngula.

Update yet again: Brian Leiter now points to an online discussion that seems to make sense, and gives good reasons not to take the study referenced above seriously as evidence of tampering. There are still some disturbing stories floating around, especially about Ohio, but nothing that seems to me to be extremely strong evidence of wrongdoing (much less "proof," as Atrios emphasizes). Worth re-checking everything as carefully as possible, of course, if only to give the appearance that the truth is what matters.

Friday, November 05, 2004
Brain in vat flies fighter jet

Ha, I bet you think the title is some clever metaphor for some contemporary political situation about which I will now snarkily comment. Nope, it's just the straightforward truth. Philosophy, Etc. links to a report from the University of Florida about researchers who have grown a brain of rat cells in a vat. Aforementioned brain, feeling all cooped up, then took a fighter jet for a spin.

To be clear, the "brain" is a collection of 25,000 neurons extracted from the brain of an actual rat, and cultured in a Petri dish. The neurons are placed separately in the dish, at which point they stretch out to each other and grow connections. Thomas DeMarse, the scientist leading the study, obviously has a sense of humor, so the first thing he did was to hook up the newly-formed brain to an F22 fighter simulator. The brain interacted with the simulator through electrodes, both giving and receiving information.

Just think of that poor rat brain, tricked into thinking it's a fighter pilot when it's really stuck in a dish in a laboratory. Philosophers love this stuff. (What will Daniel Dennett think? Or Descartes, for that matter?) The scientific justification is that there are certain tasks that organic brains are much better at than computers -- pattern recognition being a simple example. Someday the autopilot on your plane might be constructed from neurons rather than integrated circuits. Let's just hope they don't rise up and take over the world!

Thursday, November 04, 2004
Farkin' notoriety

The people who rule the internet over at Fark.com have pointed to a press release about our arrow of time paper. The comments, to be honest, are not very helpful.

Wednesday, November 03, 2004
Facing up

I don't want to talk about the damn election forever and ever, so let's just get some links out of our system.
  • At Alas, a Blog, ampersand says what I said below, but with considerably more brevity:
    The big mistake the Democrats, and most of the left, made was to believe that by winning elections we will change the country.

    Just the opposite is true. It is only by changing the country that we will win elections.
  • Over at Daily Kos, a quote worth remembering from Barack Obama's convention speech:
    In the end, that is God's greatest gift to us, the bedrock of this nation; the belief in things not seen; the belief that there are better days ahead. I believe we can give our middle class relief and provide working families with a road to opportunity. I believe we can provide jobs to the jobless, homes to the homeless, and reclaim young people in cities across America from violence and despair. I believe that as we stand on the crossroads of history, we can make the right choices, and meet the challenges that face us. America!
    Like kos says, "He speaks of God in a way that not just fails to offend this atheist, but inspires me."

  • Daniel Drezner is right: Thomas Frank's speaking fees just went through the roof.

  • At Crooked Timber, Daniel poses a fascinating math problem:
    If you flip a coin four times and it comes up heads, heads, tails, tails, then does it make even the slightest bit of sense at all to spend the next month thinking about what major structural changes need to be made to the coin if it is ever to come up heads again?
  • Majikthise collects more responses. Couldn't agree more: I'm so proud to have all these folks on my side.

What's next?

A fairly substantial Republican win across the board (here in Illinois excepted). Kerry shouldn't mount quixotic legal challenges in Ohio. It's a completely different situation from Florida four years ago; not only is Bush's lead more substantial, but he also won a decisive victory in the national popular vote. The country doesn't want to see a long fight in the courts, and the Democrats are just going to look bad by dragging it out to the legal limit. Face it, Bush won.

It's an emotionally draining defeat for liberals, who are going to find it hard to accept that the President will come out of this actually more powerful than when he went in, with a mandate from the popular vote and better majorities in Congress. Look for an extremely aggressive agenda from the Republicans -- cutting taxes, reshaping the judiciary at all levels, privatizing Social Security, drilling in Alaska and elsewhere. Not to mention continuing to feed the epidemic of anti-American sentiment worldwide. There will be little that Democrats can do to stop them.

Looks like a values-based defeat. By most surveys, a majority of Americans agreed with Kerry more than Bush on the actual issues; they mostly didn't approve (by now) of the war in Iraq; and they consistently voted against their economic self-interest. But the Bush supporters just thought he was a better human being, and therefore a better leader; not only is he more resolute and sure of his convictions, but on the key issues of God/guns/gays the Democrats have no hope of ever attracting these voters. It's sobering to think that the last non-Southern Democrat to win the White House was Kennedy in 1960.

How can we fix it? There isn't any easy way. A Democrat may very well have an good chance of winning in 2008, just because voters get sick of the ruling party fairly quickly. But the longer-term diagnosis isn't great. Ultimately we will have to fight values with values. I honestly think we have to figure out a way to convince more rural, heartland Americans to think like good secular liberals -- i.e., to come to celebrate (or at least accept) differences in race, sexual preference, religious belief, and so on. (I said it wouldn't be easy.)

In other words, we have to recharge the liberal-humanist agenda, both in putting forward new ideas and in making the good old ideas more attractive. How do you convince a rancher in Montana that it's okay to be non-Christian, non-white, non-straight? More abstractly: how do you convince them that there is value in nuance and ambiguity, in seeing the world in shades of grey? I suspect that deep down there is an economic/class-based undercurrent even to the values issues; people don't like to think that elitist snobs on the coasts are pushing beliefs down their throats. So somehow we have to repackage liberal ideals, which are really just contemporary versions of the same philosophies on which the country was founded, so that they are compelling to folks in the red states. Don't ask me how, but I think that has to be the long-term goal.

Frustrated progressives will grumble about moving to Canada. Not me; I'm going to stay home and fight.

Tuesday, November 02, 2004
A nail-biter

Congratulations to my good buddy Barack Obama, who squeaked by Alan Keyes with only about 80% of the vote, it seems.

Since I don't want to be a downer, I'll stick with that news, and not point you to the horrible news here or here.

Monday, November 01, 2004
The Conjugation of the Paramecium

By Muriel Rukeyser.
This has nothing
to do with

The species
is continued
as so many are
(among the smaller creatures)
by fission

(and this species
is very small
next in order to
the amoeba, the beginning one)

The paramecium
achieves, then,
by dividing

But when
the paramecium
desires renewal
strength another joy
this is what
the paramecium does:

The paramecium
lies down beside
another paramecium

Slowly inexplicably
the exchange
takes place
in which
some bits
of the nucleus of each
are exchanged

for some bits
of the nucleus
of the other

This is called
the conjugation of the paramecium.
What, you were expecting something about the election? Don't forget to vote.

The second time as farce

As the Green Bay Packers have essentially guaranteed a Kerry victory, we may not have George W. Bush to kick around for much longer. So as a final parting shot, let's just dwell on this quote from Donald Rumsfeld (speaking in a rare moment of honesty) that I found in an article by Jason Epstein in the New York Review:
people don't want to go to war.... But, after all, it's the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it's always a simple matter to drag the people along whether it's a democracy or a fascist dictatorship or a parliament or a communist dictatorship.... Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to greater danger. It works the same way in any country.
Oh no, wait a minute. That wasn't Rumsfeld at all -- it was Hermann Goering, speaking at the Nuremberg trials. So this wasn't really a damaging quote, it was just a cheap-shot comparison with the Nazis! Sorry about that.

Ideas on culture, science, politics.
Sean Carroll

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