Getting Science Wet

On a more positive note, I ran across a blot by my college Chad Orzel [Link] entitled “Beyoncé and LIGO: Stochastic Awareness of Science Is Probably Okay”. I have to admit that I had to look up the bouncy association and found out it did have to do with harmonic motion but that wasn’t the point. Which was, I think, social/cultural diffusion. 

I should qualify that Chad is one of the bright middle aged minds of the physics world and a colleague of communication not collaboration. He is definitely too swuft for me to keep up with. 

Anyway, his point is that outreach is too crippled with angst. That’s my take so don;t blame him. The message is that of my great uncle George about horses and water “You can lead a horse to water but at that point your choices are letting him do what he will or drowning him. And if you drown him, you have to do something with the body or the revenooers will come after you.”

George was big on displeasure with “revenooers”, mostly because he thought it a basic right to make ‘shine. Which I cannot disagree with. (They can tell me who I micturate with – ’cause I don’t like micturating with anyone and hence it’s all one – but not that I cannot make polluted ethanol solution.) But the point is the same as Chad’s. 

I have a bit different view on the matter. I have zero interest in sports. OK, not sports physics, but the games themselves: nada. In fact, I consider most spectator sports interest to be pornographic. The only reason to watch a sports event is (a) you have kin or friends involved on the field, or (b) you are studying to be able to play that sport yourself. I also dislike that I am not supposed to laugh uproariously at the antics of play. Main reason SCPdatter wouldn’t allow SCP to attend games she cheered at.

Point being, there are lots more outreach on sports than on physics. And some of that information seeps in despite my apathy. Not much admittedly, but it does. And that’s more than I would seek out.

Most of the people I know – who are bogs but that’s not obviously relevant or causal here – have little interest in science. Only if its something that can hard them, or, less often, benefit them are they interested. And in the main what they want to know is something that will allow them to deny the science. Zika is a good example, climate change the classic. Especially among politicians and Republicans. Which is another aspect.

But the point is that when it comes to physics outreach the best you can do is George’s paradigm of horse watering. 

QED. With thanks to Chad.

Human Failure

Fifth Day. Too busy a week. Hammering. But I did get to walk in park again this morning. So some repair of the damage.

Noticed an article [Link] entitled “Can We Grasp Reality?” I suspected it would be about how reality is rather complicated and complex (emergent behaviors) and it is unclear how much further humans can go in understanding reality.

What it was actually about was our delusions and misreadings of our senses. And how those very senses are inadequate to the task.

It isn’t at all clear that a greater part of the problem is that we lie to ourselves. And have other negative behaviors such as not being able to learn new things or not be deluded by old things and thoughts. 

A substantial fraction of the population is uninterested in either thinking or paying attention to reality. They think what they are living is reality, which it is in a social sense but not in a sense of actuality.

Never mind destroying progress, can extinction be far away?

Other Thoughts

It occurred to me yesterday, and developed mentally overnight, that one of the main difficulties of communication between nerds and others – bogs and some geeks – is their view of information and knowledge.

Simply put, most of humanity expects “the right answer” to any question. Science nerds know that they can do no better than “less wrong.”

Our understanding of reality is that it is infinitely unknowable. So we will always be looking for a “less wrong” understanding of it. Bogs, and some geeks, think of reality as simple and largely unchanging.

This causes all sorts of problems: Schule teachers have an expectation of a right answer. Telling them you have a less wrong answer will result in a lowered grade and probably punishment. The legal system is worse. They have adopted the religionist idea of “truth” without its defining aspect of divine revelation. Hence any statement of “the less wrong” results in an accusation of perjury and further punishment. Elected politicians are similar but usually worse.

In the glory days of science – Whewellian era – science could be right. Reality was an absolute that only had to be mapped. Scientists became admired and respected. Some of that still carries over but the bogs now spurn science as unlearn-able by “normal” people.

And the fundamental problem is that those bogs, by demanding a simple, absolute answer are the most wrong of all. And that likely spells the doom of us all.


Fifth Day. No gym. Air temperature 31 degF. So no constitutional, just a bit of a pedal on the stationary unicycle. (Only one wheel.)

One of few positives of pedaling is that I get to read. And think quite a bit differently than during constitutional. So this morning I thought about the matter of science books. This was fostered by an article [Link] about how good this year’s crop of science books are.

February and already bragging on the year? Seems a bit hubraic.

First of all, I want to distinguish between books of science and books about science. The former are mostly textbooks or collections of papers or lectures. The latter are popularizations written for the “public,” often by non-STEMs, such as journalists. That right there makes them suspect.

Reading a book of science is hard. It’s a learning effort. If it’s about a new method or discipline – at least to you – then you’re learning the basics or even advanced stuff. Reading a book about science is hard because you have to figure out what’s accurate and what is meaning-spoiling-simplification. But it’s not a source of learning, at least is you are a STEM.

The wonderment here is that these books about science sell at all. They are generally unsatisfactory to STEMs and discussions with my colleagues indicate that the probability a STEM will buy a popularization scales approximately as the distance of the topic from their own field and endeavors. IOW, physicists don’t read popularizations of physics. 

But the questions is, do the non-STEMs? Obviously there is a great difference in expectation between the number of copies of a trashy novel sold and the number of copies of a serious (?) non-fiction book sold. Lowered expectations. So a best selling science popularization has several orders of magnitude sold than a book of socially acceptable pornography.

Which brings us to another distinction: porn. Books of science are not pornographic, even medical textbooks. Books about science are porn because they offer readers vicarious inclusion in the lives and deeds of STEMs. This is probably why so many academics write popularizations. They are thereby porn stars of a sort; they offers readers opportunity to emulate the authors’ lives.

But I don’t think STEM porn is really very popular, and not because of iys lack of veracity. More a matter that STEMs just aren’t sexually engaging. Even with other STEMs.

Maths Blind

First Day. Frawggy. Not the nice type of fog that sits a few meters off the ground, the wet yucky kind that is everywhere. Hence to gym, and a podcast episode of the CBC’s “Best of Ideas” on Shackleton.

Shackleton is not someone I pay much mind of. Explorers aren’t that engaging. The most instructive thing about them is their inability to get along in society. So their chief benefit and therapy is going elsewhere.

The podcast was slanted rather heavily about climate change. Differences between then and now. They kept trying to make some moral/ethical connection but it failed consistently.

Speaking of failure, I ran across an article [Link] this weekend entitled “Gravity waves exemplify the power of intelligent equations.” And yes, this is one of those horrible parasitic pieces of journalism that use the current “big” topic as a shoehorn for something almost orthogonal. 

In this case, the article is really about the physics embedded/implied by maths. Gravitational waves are such a thing since Einstein saw them in his Relativity maths. 

This is not a new thing. It’s something you learn as an undergraduate, at least in physics. To a lesser extent in Chemistry and vanishingly in Biology. And it is a wonderful thing, I was particularly fulfilled by a quote from Heinrich Hertz,

“It is impossible to study this wonderful theory, without feeling as if the mathematical equations had an independent life and an intelligence of their own, as if they were wiser than ourselves, indeed wiser than their discoverer, as if they gave forth more than he had put into them.”

But the thing that struck me yesterday, and saddened me, was that since half of humanity is maths blind (acalculate) and much of the rest mind wiped on the subject, they can never enjoy the thrill and beauty of this. They have to live their lives in the dark, so to speak, unaware of what may be.

Very Greek Tragedy, I think. 

Not Children’s Toys

Two day. Rain seems passed, at least for this morning. Gym denser than yesterday, which is anomalous. Weather overload?

Today was science podcast day and it was a bit strange. The Guardian Science podcast was an interview with some failed physicist turned magician who had written a popularization about biology. Passing strange. 

Also listened to several bits about the gravitational wave detection. Happy to hear that the “discovery” nonsense was a stupidity of some publicist at LIGO. (Why isn’t it LIGWO?) No mention of Weber. Probably a boon?

Anyway, I heard the audio version of the detected gravitational waves. Immediately taken back to Forbidden Planet. Sound was very electronic music. This will probably spawn all sorts of conspiracy theories, especially since the cost of LIGO is being talked about.

Much grr brrr on the monitor about the fight over supreme court justice nomination. Have we descended to the level of depravity where the politicians actually believe they are more important than the nation? Apparently. 

Almost makes me yearn for a military coup. 

Singularity as Stone

Five Day. Counting down until I can visit specialist and see how big the pain (and money) bill will be for this illness. Assuming, of course, that it can be accurately diagnosed and treated. 

Other than that, a day of waiting looms, as much for the coming arrival of the dread Polar Vortex raid as for the trip to the midicalist singularity. No gym this morning so I was able to eke by with a bit of pedaling and some reading. Much easier to concentrate when one is doing boring things. Like exercise,

On which azimuths, the BIG Physics guys have announced their “discovery” – detection seems more accurate – of gravitational waves.[Link] I am uncertain since the waves were predicted by the second Great Isaac – Einstein – something like a century ago. I am fuzzy on this, general relativity course was a bit too intensive to permit any deep learning, but I suspect it’s a combination of a mental itch and a way the equations could be manipulated. Regardless, this is another case of theory being confirmed by experiment and observation. Mostly observation. Astrophysicists don’t really do experiments. Beyond our technology level. 

Over the years there have been numerous attempts to observe gravitational waves, the first, so far as I know, by Joseph Weber at the University of Maryland (?) [Link]

Weber’s approach was to take jolly big cylinders of metal, put detectors on them and look for effects of coupling of the waves with the BIG cylinder. Then he did all sorts of what we now call data mining on the observations. Around 1970 he announced that he thought he had detected gravitational waves.

One of my colleagues, Magnetic Inductance Force, commented on the aftermath of this yesterday on the Facescroll and was kind enough to share an extended version with me:

Back in 1971 – I think – Joseph Weber gave a seminar at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign physics department on his detection of gravitational waves. I was working on a graduate degree in chemical physics and knew little about gravitational waves and had little interest. But I could sense this was a moment to watch some physics in the making and so I attended

The seminar room, usually a hall that could handle a hundred, was a pit auditorium normally used to freshman service courses, and full. I nabbed one of the last available seats – still a half-hour shy of start time – and avoided having to stand in the clouds on sit on the steps. Weber came out, a bit of a stereotype of a bushy-haired scientist and gave his presentation. Only a few questions were broached and things seemed to be rather too pat.Then the Q&A began.

Several grating questions were asked and immediately fielded by Weber with nods of agreement and approval from the questioners. Then John Bardeen spoke up and the room hushed. He asked a question and Weber answered. Another question. Another answer. Bardeen became a bit intense, seemingly finding a trail of ill scent. But Weber kept coming back with what seemed good answers. Obviously he had trod this ground thoroughly before.

All of a sudden the atmosphere became more active. Q&A turned into a discussion between Bardeen and Weber with a thousand eves-droppers. It continued for a half-hours or so with no conclusion. Bardeen was still unsatisfied and Weber had not admitted any shortcoming. 

I left that seminar a different person. That interaction between Bardeen and Weber had been metamorphosing to me. I thought on the things said and heard for weeks, chewing on them mentally and with readings. In retrospect I learned more physics that afternoon than during the rest of the year. And almost didn’t go to the seminar.

Weber was eventually determined to be wrong and basically pilloried. That happens. Science is a cold mistress. Bardeen was already a laureate for inventing the transistor and went on to secure a second for his work on superconductivity.  

Weber’s effort, nor any of the others, ever had any real doubt of the existence of gravitational waves. Their failure was one of technology, not physics. And finally the technology has gotten there. This is, at best, another anti-climactic confirmation akin to the Higgs.