RSSCategory: Science

Impossible physics

June 13, 2011 | By | 2 Replies More
Impossible physics

As I approach my 50th birthday, I’ve been having fun coming up with various lists of 50 things – 50 people I want to meet, 50 sitcoms I’ve watched at some time in my lifetime, 50 quotes I like, etc.

Among the lists of lists, I gen’d up two of books I want to read (50 is far too small a number for either list, but it fits with the age thing): 50 books I own that I have yet to read – I have many, many more than that, and 50 books that I do not own that I want to read. Of course, if I ever read any of them, I will likely find myself adding to my library (no surprise there).

Physics of the Impossible by Michio Kaku happened to be first on my list of books that I do not own that I wanted to read. I picked it up last Monday when returning A Confederacy of Dunces to the library. I hadn’t planned on getting it – I was only looking to see if it was in – but was taken in immediately by the subtitle: “A Scientific Exploration into the World of Phasers, Force Fields, Teleportation, and Time Travel”. Not unlike Star Trek – I’m Working On That by William Shatner and Chip Walter, the book promised a survey of science fiction concepts becoming a reality, but very unlike Shatner’s book, here was a theoretical physicist doing the looking and explaining why something could not be done or how it might.

It’s a rare scientist (or engineer for that matter) who is truly respected by his/her peers for research results/theories who can also communicate to the masses. Richard Dawkins certainly made that leap (his early books are more academic than his later works). When it comes to physicists, I think the pool shrinks. Stephen Hawking did a marvelous job conveying cosmological concepts in his books, as did Brian Greene – though Green’s books, while quite readable, are still fairly technical for the average person.

Michio Kaku writes a very readable book…for a physicist who is the co-founder of string field theory. Perhaps that is an unfair qualification. I have known many physicists who are wonderful conversationalists, but I don’t know if they are so because I am interested in their subjects or that they are simply wonderful conversationalists with everyone. Regardless, Kaku writes as one of those wonders. Peppered throughout this book are references to other books (a lot of fiction), a few movies, some history of the people and science behind the science. Those may make Kaku more accessible to the average reader, but I think it just shows that he has a life outside of theoretical physics.

In Physics of the Impossible, Kaku looks at science fiction to see what might possibly become science fact. He breaks down his subjects into three classes of impossibilities:

  1. Technologies that are impossible today, but do not violate known laws of physics and may be possible in some form in this or the next century (these are force fields, phasers, Death Stars, ETs and UFOs, teleportation, starships/antimatter engines, antimatter universes and certain forms of telepathy, psychokinesis and invisibility.)
  2. Technologies that “sit at the very edge of our understanding of the physical world.” They may not be possible at all, and if so, will likely only be possible thousands or millions of years in the future (these are time machines, hyperspace and wormhole travel as forms of travel faster than light, and parallel universes.)
  3. Technologies that violate the known laws of physics, which if possible, will result in a fundamental shifting of understanding of physics (Kaku notes there are surprisingly few such impossibilities, examining only perpetual motion machines and precognition).

Of course, one should read the book before thinking that Star Trek’s transporters, phasers, warp engines, or shields (force fields) could ever become a reality. I won’t spoil your read by revealing what the “certain forms” might be, but you can guess that Dr. McCoy won’t be complaining about having his atoms scattered across the universe for many centuries to come.

I was intrigued by Kaku’s discussions of what one would call paranormal, but after he gently observes that there has never been any real evidence for telepathy, psychokinesis or precognition, he explains the physics behind how one might be able to realize a part of the first two (precognition violates the known laws of the universe, thus cannot be performed through any technology…but is not completely impossible.) I liked his summary of science and psychokinesis:

One problem with analyzing psychokinesis scientifically is that scientists are easily fooled by those claiming to have psychic power. Scientists are trained to believe what they see in the lab. Magicians claiming psychic powers, however, are trained to deceive others by fooling their visual senses.

He’s fair where research has had some seemingly positive findings, but does note that “fully half” of the successful trial of the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research Program “originated from a single individual” and that the results are always non-reproducible.

The lesson here is that while almost nothing is impossible (what scientists really mean is that these ideas are impossible for primitives such as us), the technology needed to overcome the impossible is impossibly advanced.

So, I strike one from one list and add at least seven, as I now want to read Kaku’s other books. I highly recommend Physics of the Impossible as a diversion from the contemporary news.

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More on human sameness and variation

June 7, 2011 | By | 2 Replies More
More on human sameness and variation

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The non-science permeating the field of economics

June 2, 2011 | By | 6 Replies More
The non-science permeating the field of economics

Most economists failed to predict the market crash of 2008–so many that it is hard to count them all. But how is this even possible? It’s on a scale of this hypothetical: 98% of  meteorologists failing to predict a huge hurricane hitting the coast of Florida.  Consider this description of the problem:

Like everyone else, we wondered how could the world’s leading economy and its top economists, including the Federal Reserve Chairman, Ben Bernanke – a man who is surrounded by a network of smartest investors, scientists, and think tanks – miss the financial crisis and its impact on the US Economy?

The predictive failures by economists causes a friend of mine to argue that, as a general rule, economists are not scientists at all, and that they are “frauds.”  In my opinion, he’s overstating the point because there were some economists who clearly predicted the burst of the housing bubble, but most of the economists who take to the airwaves don’t seem to be scientists like the scientists who develop vaccines or design solar panels. They are often terrible at making predictions, and their lapses can look cataclysmic in retrospect.  They are like sportscasters, always looking forward to the next game, trying hard to divert attention from their previous failures. They seem more like lawyers or PR specialists than scientists.  This article at Wharton suggests that the economists who failed to predict the housing bubble lack “common sense”:

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Twins appear to share thoughts through thalamic bridge

May 28, 2011 | By | Reply More
Twins appear to share thoughts through thalamic bridge

Two extraordinarily unusual five-year old twins share more than conjoined skulls.  They appear to share some of their thoughts.  Susan Dominus of the New York Time covers this emotionally and scientifically rich story well from many angles.

Their brain images reveal what looks like an attenuated line stretching between the two organs, a piece of anatomy their neurosurgeon, Douglas Cochrane of British Columbia Children’s Hospital, has called a thalamic bridge, because he believes it links the thalamus of one girl to the thalamus of her sister. The thalamus is a kind of switchboard, a two-lobed organ that filters most sensory input and has long been thought to be essential in the neural loops that create consciousness. Because the thalamus functions as a relay station, the girls’ doctors believe it is entirely possible that the sensory input that one girl receives could somehow cross that bridge into the brain of the other. One girl drinks, another girl feels it.

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Philip Zimbardo’s revenge: Turning knowledge of evil into actions of heroism

May 28, 2011 | By | 4 Replies More
Philip Zimbardo’s revenge: Turning knowledge of evil into actions of heroism

I’ve previously commented on Phillips Zimbardo’s thoroughly engaging work, including his lecture on “The Secret Powers of Time.”  He is well respected for his research on a wide variety of social psychology issues.

Forty years ago, Zimbardo unwittingly served as the mastermind of the infamous “Stanford prison experiment.”  He selected healthy young men with no history of any psychological problems, drug abuse or violence and he put them into a situation where they would fill the roles of prisoners and guards in a simulated prison (in a school building) that soon turned ugly as Zimbardo stood by and observed. The prisoner abuse eventually become intolerable. During the course of the experiment, the “guards” became physically and emotionally abusive toward the “prisoners.” Zimbardo took a lot of criticism for running this experiment, even though he shut it down six days after beginning what was scheduled to be a two-week long experiment. Zimbardo still today notes that his own “passive role” enabled the abuse. The Stanford experiment clearly demonstrated that a toxic situation can cause “good” people to act grotesquely.

Based on his previous work, including the Stanford experiment, Zimbardo was called to serve as an expert witness in a case the US government brought against an Abu Ghraib guard who was accused of being a “bad apple.” Zimbardo disagreed with that characterization, opining that Abu Ghraib was a terrible situation that was likely to corrupt many good people. As indicated in an article by Greg Miller titled “Using the Psychology of Evil to Do Good” in the April 29, 2011 edition of Science (available online only to subscribers), the guard being prosecuted:

. . . soon found himself supervising about a dozen military police and dozens more Iraqi police responsible for guarding more than 1000 Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib. The prisoner population had recently tripled, creating a chaotic environment in which standard procedures and oversight broke down. The language barrier made prisoner same anonymous, Zimbardo says, and many prisoners were forced to go naked, further dehumanizing them and creating a sexually charged atmosphere. Guards worked daily 12 hour shifts for weeks on end. Fear of a revolt-or an attack from outside-mixed with boredom and exhaustion to create a volatile brew.

In short, Abu Ghraib constituted an episode of déjà vu for Zimbardo. It was no surprise to him that guards with no history of troublemaking or bad character would engage in grotesque acts.

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“Retard” and other disability-insults.

May 21, 2011 | By | 8 Replies More
“Retard” and other disability-insults.

The word “retard” possessed dual meanings for a long time. First used as a term for intellectual disability in 1788, the word took on a pejorative sense in the 1970s. For thirty years the two meanings curiously co-existed. Universities had “Mental Retardation and Developmental Disability” Departments and students who drunkenly called one another ‘retards’ for lobbing bad beer-pong balls, and the two existed in tandem.

But once medical and social service experts finally disavowed the word ‘retard’, it vanished from official usage with amazing swiftness. The Special Olympics ceased using the ‘r-word’ in 2004, initiating the trend. In 2006, the (former) American Association of Mental Retardation changed its name to the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities.

By 2008, Special Olympics turned the abolishment of ‘retard’ into a full-time effort and launched R-word.org. The site protested the derogatory use of ‘retard’ (including a protest campaign against the 2008 film Tropic Thunder, which featured a lengthy discussion on ‘retard’ roles in film). Special Olympics and R-word.org also pushed for their fellow disability-service organizations to drop the term.

In 2010, ‘retard’ was legally banished from the professional lexicon. On October 5 of last year, Obama signed “Rosa’s Law”, which banned the use of “retard” in all federal health, education, and labor policy. “Intellectual disability” and “developmental disability” became the approved nomenclature. Non-federal organizations followed hastily: in Ohio, Google directs you to the “Department of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities“, but the website itself has already been scrubbed of the R-word(even if the url still has the dreaded ‘r’ in it).

It’s official: ‘retard’ has no place in formal usage. Once a medical term for someone with an intellectual disability, it lives now only as an insult. One that means, roughly, unintelligent.

Like moron, which began as medical terminology for one with a mental age of 8 to 12.

Or imbecile, which meant ‘a mental age of 6 to 9‘.

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And now there’s Error Management Theory

May 20, 2011 | By | 2 Replies More
And now there’s Error Management Theory

Why do people so readily believe in Gods?  Dominic D.P. Johnson presents “Error Management Theory” (the name plays off Terror Management Theory).  This is an excerpt from the abstract Johnson’s book, The Error of God: Error Management Theory, Religion, and the Evolution of Cooperation:

“Error Management Theory” is derived from signaling theory, suggests that if the costs of false positive and false negative decision-making errors have been asymmetric over human evolutionary history, then natural selection would favor a bias towards the least costly error over time (in order to avoid whichever was the worse error). So, for example, we have a bias to sometimes think that sticks are snakes (which is harmless), but never that snakes are sticks (which may be deadly). Applied to religious beliefs and behaviors, I derive the hypothesis from EMT that humans may gain a fitness advantage from a bias in which they tend to assume that their every move (and thought) is being watched, judged, and potentially punished by supernatural agents. Although such a belief would be costly because it constrains freedom of action and self-interested behaviors, it may nevertheless be favored by natural selection if it helps to avoid an error that is even worse: committing selfish actions or violations of social norms when there is a high probability of real-world detection and punishment by victims or other group members. Simply put, supernatural beliefs may have been an effective mindguard against excessively selfish behaviour – behavior that became especially risky and costly as our social world became increasingly transparent due to the evolution of language and theory of mind. If belief in God is an error, it may at least be an adaptive one.

I spotted this abstract while exploring a website titled Evolution of Religion. Here’s the aim of the project, of which Dominic Johnson is a part:

Religious believers incur significant costs in terms of time, energy and resources that could be spent elsewhere. Religion therefore poses a major puzzle for disciplines that explain behavior on the basis of individual costs and benefits—in particular economics and evolutionary biology. To many scholars, religious beliefs and behaviors appear so bizarre and so costly that they fall outside rational explanation, leading instead to explanations based on psychosis, cognitive accidents, or cultural parasites. The aim of our project is to conduct a scientific examination of exactly the opposite hypothesis—that religious beliefs and behavior confer adaptive advantages to individual believers, and were therefore favored by natural selection over human evolutionary history. In other words, religion may have evolved.

For further reading on the evolution of religion, the website offers this reading list.

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Will China’s moonshots rejuvenate America’s respect for science?

May 19, 2011 | By | 6 Replies More
Will China’s moonshots rejuvenate America’s respect for science?

China has already sent two unmanned lunar probes to the moon, and China has bold plans to send several astronauts to the moon by 2017. While those Chinese astronauts are on the moon, they plan to mine helium 3, an ideal fuel for nuclear fusion.  We can assume that when Chinese astronauts step onto the moon, video cameras will be bringing beautiful images back to the world, which will then applaud China’s great technological achievement, to America’s begrudging dismay.

Thus, China is about to a space exploring nation in a dramatic and visible way. This is exactly what American needs. Why? China’s highly visible lunar program comes at a time when American is dramatically cutting its space ambitions (including the Shuttle program). America is being subjected to systematic campaigns disparaging science, much of it driven by religious leaders, corporate disinformation and government attempts to manipulate data.  At the same time, anti-science religion is thriving in many American classrooms.

The United States is essentially a warmongering nation; we lurch from war to war. Americans apparently need an enemy to make sense of things. For us to get our heads back into science and math, we apparently need a math and science “enemy,” someone to intellectually challenge our standing as a technologically “advanced” nation.

[More . . . ]

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Dr. Science redux

May 16, 2011 | By | Reply More
Dr. Science redux

I used to listen to a “Dr. Science” show once in a while, but I don’t know what he’s up to lately. I did just run across this short Youtube video. Quick answers to challenging science questions:

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