Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Of Determinism and Uncertainty

God does not play dice. ~ Albert Einstein

Albert Einstein got off to one of the greatest starts in scientific history. His papers on the photon, special relativity, and general relativity established him as one of the greatest minds of all time. His researches led others off into researches that might have been considered utterly fantastic at one time. With Einstein providing their basis, though, the new theories flew.

Einstein, himself, became an icon. He was eminently quotable and was willing to offer a quip at any time. The press and the public loved him. Some of his fellow physicists, however, would soon take a tack that Einstein could not follow.

If you go back to Newtonian physics, you see that the laws of motion essentially lay down hard laws about how everything gets from here to there or how it stays put. It was the root of determinism, the philosophy that everything is predetermined based on some initial conditions of the universe. In theory, if you could measure the position and motion of every particle in the universe, you could predict everything that would happen from then on. When Einstein developed his theories of relativity, he extended determinism to the far reaches of the universe, explaining what happened at great distances and at high speeds.
This is no small idea. If everything is essentially predictable, then we are simply going through the motions. It doesn't matter what you think you might do; all your actions are predestined. Free will is a myth.

You might think that this is merely a philosophical exercise. After all, no one can, in practice, find the positions and motions of all particles in the universe, so no one can really predict anything. But, it doesn't matter that you don't have the means to find out where it all is. What matters is that everything is following set laws and is locatable. That means you're just a large particle getting bounced around by other large particles.
This has been a fundamental bone of contention to philosophers for generations. If you're a believe in determinism, then you can argue that no one is actually accountable for their actions because they had no choice in the matter. In the opposing camp were the believers in free will, who felt that we are masters of our fate; our actions can be altered and can alter events. Most importantly, we are responsible for what we do and can choose whether we will do good or ill. Einstein seemed to have sealed the deal in favor of determinism.
Then along came Werner Heisenberg.

Heisenberg was one of a group of physicists who had used some of Einstein's own theories to develop quantum mechanics. If relativity is the theory of the very large, quantum mechanics is the theory of the very, very, very small. Heisenberg and the rest of the so-called Copenhagen Group, led by Neils Bohr, were the champions of quantum mechanics. And quantum mechanics said that atomic particles were ruled by probability.

Heisenberg went further. He said that the very act of measurement changed the state of a particle. If you measured the position of, say, an electron, you could not say anything about it's velocity or momentum. If you measured it's velocity, you altered its position. In other words, you could not know all the attributes of a particle. This was the Heisenberg Uncertainty principle.

Einstein hated quantum mechanics. His line about God and dice came about because he refused to accept that quantum mechanics spoke only in probabilities. He was also quick to realize that elements of quantum mechanics implied some pretty strange things, such as “spooky action at a distance.” If you have an electron pair, one is spinning one way while the other is spinning the other way (actually, "spin" is a more complex proerty than that, but we'll pretend it's just rotation). Quantum mechanics says that, until you measure one, they both have all the possible spin properties. The measurement of one collapses the probability function and determines the spin of the other. If you separate them prior to measurement, it is theoretically possible, then, to measure one, say on Earth. If the other has been transported to Mars, and its spin is then checked, it will be found to be spinning differently from the other.

And this will be the case even if they are measured simultaneously. The information from one will instantaneously set the other, which is a violation of special relativity which says that this information cannot travel faster than the speed of light. Experiments have been conducted that show that this effect actually occurs.

(I apologize for the lame explanation. Check out John Gribbin's In Search of Schroedinger's Cat, among others, for a more lucid description of the quantum effects.)

But, in Einstein's day, the technology to conduct such experiments didn't yet exist, so he could engage in debates with Neils Bohr over the validity of quantum mechanics. Einstein would concoct a thought experiment and challenge Bohr to show where it was wrong. And, after some thought, Bohr would do so. Ultimately, in frustration, Einstein uttered his famous line. Bohr replied to the effect that Einstein shouldn't be telling God how He should do things.

Ultimately, it has turned out that quantum mechanics works. The implication is that the universe is variable, shaped by the actions of the particles, large and small, that inhabit it. There are laws and theories that allow us to make predictions and manage events to some extent, but there is also uncertainty. And that uncertainty is the realm of free will. Some people are very uncomfortable with that; they would rather believe that higher powers call the shots while we merely shuffle along. I don't think Einstein thought in those terms. He wanted to understand the universe down to the smallest atom. The fact that he couldn't pin down these illusive little critters bothered him to the end of his days. He became isolated from the society of physicists who moved on to new discoveries and theories.

But, then, he did it of his own free will.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Hunting Hobbits

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. ~ J. R. R. Tolkien

Homo floresiensis, also known as “the hobbit”, has become a contentious issue as some scientists are arguing that the fossil hominid is a diseased Homo erectus, not a dwarf version.

It's hardly surprising that such an interesting group of bones would cause controversy. Just about any new hominid find gets the anthropologists into an uproar. For example, Donald Johanssen, discoverer of Lucy, and Richard Leakey were on opposite sides when it came to the discussion of the human family tree. Leakey felt a skull he had found was an earlier human ancestor than Johanssen's Lucy. When that key fossil in the Leakey case was found to have been incorrectly dated, the debate cooled for a while, but that didn't change Leakey's mind much, and a team led by his wife, Maeve, more recently discovered a fossil that raised most of the questions all over again.

It's easy to understand why there is so much debate. We have literally tons of dinosaur remains; we have mammoths coming out of our ears; the La Brea tar pits have enough bones of sabre-tooth cats and other animals to fill a bunch of zoos were they suddenly to come to life. But when it comes to human ancestors, the record is considerably more sketchy. This is relatively easy to understand. For one thing, there weren't near as many hominids and early humans running around as there were woolly mammoths. Second, early hominids were often dinner for various predators, which meant the bones were getting crunched up and scattered about. There was far less liklihood of a hominid's or an early Homo's bones to be thoughtfully laid out in a stream bed for some enterprising graduate student to dig up a few hundred thousand years later.

As a result, anthropologists tend to do a lot of theorizing based on the discovery of a few teeth or a skull cap. When they find a significant portion of a skeleton, well, they tend to go a little nuts. According to some scientists, this is what has happened to Peter Brown and Mike Norwood, discoverers of Homo floresiensis. Brown and Norwood, as noted, theorize that the so-called “hobbit” is a down-sized version of Homo erectus. He got small because his ancestors ended up stranded on an island, so they got smaller to adapt to the limited food supply and space.

There is good evidence for this sort of thing occurring in the animal world. Pygmy mammoths have been found in places that were cut off by water from the mainland after regular-sized mammoths arrived. Pygmy dinosaurs have been discovered in similar sorts of areas in Romania. It's natural to expect natural selection to operate in favor of downsizing animals when food and space is at a premium. And, of course, pygmy humans exist today, although for different reasons, but their existence shows that human groups can come in all sizes. Some experts, however, are casting doubts on whether “the hobbit” is, in fact, a miniaturized erectus.

The debate is about the size of floresiensis' brain. Even allowing for dwarfism, the brain appears to be too small. According to a team led by Robert Martin, the skull found in Indonesia is actually microcephalic, a known medical condition that causes an abnormally small brain. The discoverers, of course, hotly debate this, pointing out that they have found other small bones and tools. Surely they couldn't have found an entire tribe of microcephalics. If, by some extraordinary chance they had, such a group would be incapable of making the tools the excavators found.

The problem is that, while more bones have been found, there's only one skull, and based on the size of its brain relative to the predicted size of a dwarfed human, it would be microcephalic. What is needed, then, are more skulls or, at least, parts of skulls of sufficient completeness to determine the size of the brain.

Easy for me to say. Hominid skulls are scarcer than hen's teeth anyway, as I've said. In a small population (numbers, not stature) they'll be even harder to find.

It will be interesting to see what, if any, further discoveries are found in Indonesia. The case on Homo floresiensis is not closed and may turn out to be a fascinating look at evolution at work. There is still work that can be done investigating the indigenous population of the area to see if a connection can be found from the small-statured (but not abnormally so) local inhabitants and their possible tiny ancestors.

But I do hope that they stop calling the little devil “the hobbit.” I keep expecting them to find elves next.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006


I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious. ~Albert Einstein

Voyager 1 and 2 appear to be at the edge of the heliopause after a trip of 28 years. To slip into the vernacular, this is freakin' amazing. Thanks to their tiny nuclear power plants, they're still transmitting information back to the Deep Space Network (given the recent report by the GAO, the Voyager satellites might outlast the DSN).

Meanwhile, on Mars, the rovers Spirit and Opportunity are into the third year of their ninety-day mission and still truckin'. Spirit is dragging a stuck wheel, and Opportunity could use a trip to the rover-wash to clean off its solar panels, but these odd-looking explorers continue on long after their warranties have expired.

Let's face it: When we do it right, we do it right. When we do it wrong, we really do it wrong. How wrong? Challenger. Columbia. Mars Polar Lander. Genesis. There's always a post mortem which finds that NASA's management methods stink, and no one has done anything about since the last time. I think this misses the point.

To be sure NASA has gone through some debatable management methodologies. The “Better, Faster, Cheaper” philosophy may have given us the original rover, but it also gave us a Mars probe that missed the planet altogether because the contractors and the NASA controllers were not using the same measurement system.

Speaking of contractors, it was Morton-Thoikol management bullying their engineering group to “put your management hat on” that was the final straw that caused the Challenger disaster. It's easy after the fact to say that the O-ring design was fatally flawed. Where were these experts before that was proved disastrously? Even the Morton-Thiokol engineers who were arguing against launch could only produce a few inconclusive tests to justify their concern.

It's easy to be smart after the fact (I should know; I am positively brilliant, in hindsight). The problem is that we only analyze the failures. Why was their no board of inquiry, complete with admirals, generals, and Richard Feynman to find out why the Voyager missions performed so well? Will there be an investigation into how NASA could create Mars rovers that could outperform everyone's wildest dreams? I doubt it.

I have never been completely convinced that we learn more from failure than from success. We do learn from the mistakes of others to some extent, but we tend to celebrate success without figuring out what the team did to produce that success. Well, perhaps I misspeak a bit. There are books about secrets to success, but they tend to focus on gimmicks and shortcuts, as though we're afraid that success may have something to do with things like hard work, perserverance, and dedication.

One thing no one can say about space explorers, scientists, and engineers is that they're lazy. These people work long and hard. Yet some are fabulously successful, while other fail or at least fail to completely meet their goals. The tendency is to blame the failures on bad luck (who could have predicted that the ultrasonic freemis would go bad 10 seconds after launch?) and forgivable human error.

Ultimately, it has to be people. The freemis failed because someone shorted on the testing. In the successes, no one cuts corners. Every problem is addressed and solutions tested until the potential for failure is minimized. You can never guarantee that something totally unforeseen might happen. A meteor might hit the satellite right after it enters orbit, for example. But you need to do everything possible to ensure that human error or lack of effort isn't the cause of a failure.

Consider the Apollo fire. After striking successes with Mercury and Gemini, the pressure to get to the moon was as great as ever because we still seemed to lag behind the Russians. Remember, for all of its wonder, the lunar explorations were mostly a matter of politics. We were going to the moon because the Russians were trying to, and we were going to be first. The Apollo capsule was a complete mess from the getgo. The astronauts tried to tell the manufacturer and NASA, but no one would stop to make it right.

When three men died, they stopped and made it right. Gene Krantz has never said this, but I think it was at this point that his philosophy that saved the Apollo 13 crew was born: “Failure is not an option.”

At the opposite end of the spectrum are the Mars rovers. The original little rover was supposed to be a proof of concept. Had the rover team bought into that “Better, Faster, Cheaper” nonsense, the rovers would be two piles of junk lying in the Martian sands. Instead they tested and found out that a lot of things just didn't scale up. The air bag concept could have been a disaster; tests showed the bags rupturing with the bigger load. The parachute system would have caused the rovers to leave holes bigger than the Mars Polar Lander made. Instead of buying into the “scale-up” concept and then applying band-aids when things didn't go well, the rover team dug deep and changed what had to be changed, like changing the parachute design, and seriously fortifying the airbags (which the next rover won't use at all).

We need to know how teams like those that launched the Voyagers, the rovers, Cassini-Huygens, Deep Impact, and Stardust operated. Let's start analyzing what went right and how we can do it again.

It's cheaper in the long run.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Dubious Science

Dare to be naive. ~ Buckminster Fuller

I love science. I wanted to be a physicist in my youth, but there was this little problem of something called eigenfunctions (it's math; if you never heard of it, don't worry, because you're better off not knowing). However, like the guy who was a scrub on every team he ever played on loves athletics, I still love science. That doesn't mean, though, that I necessarily accept everything I hear or agree with every effort scientists are undertaking. I know enough physics, math, and chemistry to be dangerous when it comes to being a critic, which probably puts me ahead of some science writers. Therefore, allow me to expound on some things that cause me to go, “Hmmm....”.

String Theory – This is the hot new thing in physics. Basically, instead of quarks, protons, and electrons being hard little particles, they're cute little vibrating strings. Take this and add a bunch of spatial dimensions and you've got String Theory, which, according to its proponents is supposed to unify quantum mechanics (the science of itty bitty things) with Einstein's theories of relativity (the science of really big things, like, say, the universe). It doesn't bother me that they're replacing particles with strings; they could be day-glo slinkies if it helps theorists. Even the 11-dimension universe where most of the dimensions are rolled up into teeny little dimensions we can't see doesn't bother me. Four dimensions always has seemed to be so limiting.

No, the problem is that String Theory is so blamed complicated, almost no one can actually explain it or understand it. Even the people who understand it don't understand all of it. Relativity is supposed to be complex, but it isn't really. The math isn't even all that difficult. It's the concepts that Einstein drew together and the conclusions he developed from those concepts that make it wonderful. Well, there's that and the fact that Einstein's theories made predictions that have been tested and found to be correct over and over again.

String Theory (and its big brother M-theory) isn't very good at making testable predictions. Oh, it makes predictions of a sort, but most of them involve untestable experimental conditions, like simulating the Big Bang. I suspect that String Theory will be superseded by something more realistic some day soon. Maybe Day-glo Slinky theory. If it is, you read it here first.

The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) – It's not that I don't think that there might be other intelligent life in the universe; I do, although sometimes I'm not sure that there's much on Earth. The problem, when you're looking for life in the galaxy and beyond, is that, to quote The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, “Space is big. Really, really big.” It would be nice to get a signal from the Purple People Eaters of Rigel V, but it's not like we'd be having much of a conversation. And, no, I don't think that Little Green Men have been landing on Earth and abducting drunks from the bayou. Let's face it. If someone came all this way and found us, they'd either be communicating with us or having us for lunch (as the main course, not as a guest).

There is, of course, a huge psychological element to finding out that intelligent life does exist elsewhere. I think one of the hopes of those who support SETI is that if we can see that there is life elsewhere in the universe, perhaps we could bring some sense of unity to people here on Earth. That's overly optimistic. Politicians will not be impressed with the fact that someone 200 light years away can broadcast a series of prime numbers. It is highly unlikely they would change their attitudes.

We should, however, be concentrating on finding habitable planets, because we need to be seriously considering future home sites. The Earth has been around for 4.5 billion years. During that time, we've been hit by very large rocks from space, ice ages (including one of the snowball-earth variety), volcanic planetary makeovers, and various other mass extinction devices. In fact, we're overdue to be clobbered by some lump from the Kuiper Belt the size of Detroit or having Wyoming turn into the “Land of Lava Lakes”. We should be finding potential places to move to and developing the means to get there. Hoping that Zathrus is going to call with the plans to NCC-1701 isn't going to get the job done.

Researching the Obvious – The other day I read that researchers have determined that people who carry guns in their cars are more prone to road rage. Oh, good, now I can worry that when some guy flips me the bird because I won't shove someone off the road to get out of his way, he's liable to shoot me, too.

What is with this constant bombardment of research proving that men and women are different or that the bread really does fall jelly side down (or doesn’t, depending on who performs the study)? These nonsensical researches take away human and monetary resources that could be used on more worthwhile research like affordable power, curing cancer, or growing food more efficiently. Oh, I know, there's supposed to be some deeply meaningful research behind these obvious findings, but it must be pretty deep. Or maybe there really isn't anything there at all.

Many of these so-called studies are actually funded by corporations, trade groups, or professional organizations trying to publicize some point or another. By their nature, the studies are geared to find out what the funder wants it to find. We need some "truth in research" legislation badly. The trouble is that the sorts of groups that fund cockamamy research also happen to have huge lobbies in Washington.

Space Tourism – What an immense waste it is. Burt Rutan and friends would like us to believe that they've done all this miraculous development on a shoestring with no help from the government, breaking new and uncharted ground.

Sorry, it just ain't so. Without years of government-funded research into composite materials, Space Ship One would never have flown. The launch method was developed in the 1950's by the U.S. military to launch the X-series rocket planes. Basically, we've got a glorified X-15 here, with its stated goal to provide a vehicle for people to ride up to space and come back (probably). Unlike the Arianne rockets that have put valuable payloads into space, like communications satellites, with great reliability, nothing that so-called private rocketry is developing will have any use other than to be a toy for the very wealthy.

Frankly, I don't think it will get that far. I suspect that fairly soon one or more of these “pioneers” will be begging for government funding so they can produce something useful. Gee, taxpayers paying to help corporations make money: Won't that be a surprise?

( Since I wrote those words, these clever "entrepreneurs" have conned governments into fighting to pour money down a rat hole to build spaceports using -- ready for this? -- government funding. Considering that the original objective for commerical spaceflight was to use commercial facilities, it would appear that there's been a change of heart amongst the rugged individualists.)

Maybe I could get a grant for my day-glo slinky theory of matter. It could happen.

[updated from original item posted in Gog's Blog 2/25/06)

Sunday, May 14, 2006

The Eye of the Beholder

A science is any discipline in which the fool of this generation can go beyond the point reached by the genius of the last generation. ~Max Gluckman

Well, stop the presses. It seems that the great mammoth caper wasn't our fault after all. In case you haven't been paying attention, of late there's been a lot of discussion on science-type shows blaming Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons for the demise of the wooly mammoth, the mastodon, the sabre tooth cats, and early life on Mars. Well, maybe not that last one, but just about everything else that died out in the last 100,000 years has been laid at the skin-clad feet of early homo sapiens (with an occasional assist from neanderthalis).

I've never cared for that theory for a couple of simple reasons. First, there weren't very many people at the time these animals were going away. It wasn't like there was huge competition for the territory between mammoths and humans. Second, humans weren't very well armed. Even hunting in platoons, trying to down a mammoth with a long stick with a well-shaped pointy rock is dangerous stuff. I suspect the mammoths caused their share of human casualties. Doubtless there were times when it was debatable as to whom was going to send whom to extinction.

Early modern humans had ingenious throwing sticks for their spears, but even with this tool, getting a spear deep enough into a mammoth to actually kill it was a dicey proposition. More likely, the locals looked for the sick or young separated from the herd. They quite probably scavenged as well. Certainly there were times they could run some game over a cliff, but the relative handful of humans wasn't going to wipe out anything on its own.

No, it seems that the weather was a much bigger factor. The climate was changing, taking away habitat, changing the available forage foods, leaving the mammoths (and all those other guys, except the Martians) living a marginal existence. Hunting by humans may have been the final blow, but that's all it was.

It's intriguing how some theories come and go. it's almost as though a particular attitude is fashionable this year, so theorists start impressing it on everything in their field for which they don't have a better answer. Anthropology and ancient history seem especially prone to this sort of thing.

In the days of western European expansion and imperialism, it was standard to describe all non-white races as savages or backward. They were savages if they had no known great visible works, like Native Americans or Africans. They were backward if they had at some time created great buildings or civilizations but had declined. They declined, of course, because they did not know about Christianity. So, in the name of Jesus, these peoples, like the Aztecs, Mayans, and Inca were exploited and robbed.

As time passed (a lot of time), it became fashionable to think of these peoples as having lived harmoniously with nature, being one with the land and the cosmos, while modern civilization had lost its innocence. The trouble with this idea was that it didn't explain why some great ancient cities had been abandoned. It also didn't explain what seemed to be evidence of human sacrifice and endless warring that was evident in the glyphs that archaeologists were turning up.

At the moment, we seem to be going through a pretty good fashion. We've come to realize that supposedly “savage” peoples actually had sophisticated civilizations, like the Anasazi or the builders of Great Zimbabwe. We've also come to realize that these civilizations had the same kinds of problems we have. Rather than being one with the land, they were capable of using up the resources, over planting the land and wiping out large forest tracts. Because of this, large cities could no longer be supported, and the people, after going through the strife that lack of food causes, drifted away.

And, boy, did they kill each other. Losers in battle didn't get to go home and collect a pension. Most of them ended up getting their hearts torn out or being dismembered in variously imaginative ways. In other words, these people were, in many ways, as stupid and violent as we are.

But, there was brilliance, too. Great art, sophisticated inventions, trade networks, and more were in use thousands of years earlier than the intelligentsia used to be willing to admit. Thanks to this realization, people are beginning to realize that humans were a lot smarter earlier than we were normally prone to think.

Well, why not? Our brains are no bigger than the brains of those Cro-Magnons, and we come up with clever ideas all the time. Why would they not be able to come with great ideas? We now have a greater appreciation for the engineering work of early cultures. Even Greece and Rome are now recognized to have developed a level of sophistication far beyond what was thought many years ago.

A few years from now, some new variation on these themes will become fashionable. There is already an undercurrent of thought that civilization got started earlier than we think. Right now that line of though is the property of the kooky crowd, folks like Graham Hancock and the Bosnian Pyramid hunter. It's difficult to imagine a highly developed civilization appearing so soon after the ice age. But there may be evidence out there. I don't think it will be related to Bosnian pyramid or the Sphinx, but there are other places. China is a vast place and had some of the earliest organized human activities. The Middle East reveals surprises all the time as more ancient sites are discovered.

The thought of Graham Hancock becoming fashionable is a little scary, though.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Hunting the Crunch

There is something fascinating about science. One gets such wholesale returns of conjecture out of such a trifling investment of fact. ~Mark Twain

Sometimes it's remarkable to see how scientists will attempt to repackage an old theory and try to make it sound like a new idea. Recently, a couple of scientists proposed what was purported to be a new idea about the fate of the universe. To do so, they put a new wrinkle something Einstein called his greatest mistake: The good ol' cosmological constant.

When Einstein was developing his General Theory of Relativity, he ran into a problem. In folding gravity into his Special Theory of Relativity, he found that the equations stubbornly insisted that warped space would result in stars and galaxies drifting together, which in turn meant that space itself would be shrinking. Obviously, Einstein thought, any fool could see that the universe was static. After all, it was billions of years old, although just how old was still a subject of spirited debate in his time (and still is, to some extent, today). So the great theorist inserted a fudge factor, a repulsive force, which he called the cosmological constant.

He hated that.

Fortunately, along came Edwin Hubble whose spectra of distant galaxies showed that, while the velocity of stars might seem to be low, galaxies were moving like bats out of hell. Moreover, the farther away they were, the faster they went. Einstein happily scrapped the constant.

However, the durned thing just wouldn't go away. It turns out that continuing observations indicate that something a bit weird is going in the universe. The galaxies should be slowing down. It turns out that the expansion is speeding up, at least according to current interpretations of the data. The only way to explain that is to postulate some sort of repulsive force, an antigravity force, as it is called in the popular press.

Now, one of the ongoing conundrums of cosmology concerns the fate of the universe. If there's enough mass, the expansion would halt, and gradually all the stuff in the universe would come back together in a “big crunch.” If there isn't, then the universe will expand forever, getting more diffuse and eventually becoming a haze of elemental particles. Despite the fact that either of these events is billions of years in the future, people seem bothered by either outcome. Perhaps it's because that a non-eternal universe is disturbing to those who look forward to spending an eternity in some sort of afterlife. Maybe it's just a matter of being depressed by the thought of a cooled down, lifeless void.

The crunch seems to be the psychologically referred option, because, if the current universe started out from some primordial point source, maybe once it finishes crunching, it'll start over again with another big bang. Hence, we have cosmologists invoking dark matter, dark energy, and all manner of other exotica to show that there must be more mass than we can see.

Now the idea of the cyclical universe is not anything new. Hindu religion has postulated such a cycle as part of its own creation stories. In scientific circles, one can find the theory being espoused in the 1970's (Nigel Calder mentions the possibility in Einstein's Universe; Carl Sagan did so in Cosmos). That's why I'm a bit mystified as to what is so new and wonderful about yet another theory of crunch-bang.

The scientists mentioned in the article have dressed up their theory with a cute spin on the cosmological constant, saying in previous universes it was bigger. Their math, which I'm sure I wouldn't understand, must be fascinating, because how the universe could come back together with an even bigger repulsive force than is seen today is beyond my feeble understanding.

In fact, their conclusions fly in the face of recent findings that seem to indicate that, given the continuing increase in the expansion rate and the fact that no one seems to be able to find sufficient mass to reverse it, the universe's fate would appear to be of the fuzzy void variety. Clearly, some people are finding this to be unthinkable.

The fact is, we don't know the fate of the universe. And, while the big bang makes an excellent model, we don't really know for sure how the whole ball of wax got rolling in the first place. This is not trivial stuff. We want to know this badly. If we didn't, we wouldn't have string theorists doing mindbending mathematics to come up with an 11-dimension universe coexisting with other universes, each on its own M-brane.

And you though science fiction was weird.

But, the search for the answer is worth it. We find out a lot about who we are when we try to find out about the universe around us. Whether there are parallel universes, Brahma cycles, or pudgy neutrinos, every step we take in searching for them is a step toward our own growth.

When we stop wondering about our universe, we'll stop caring about ourselves.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Gog's Guide to Documentary Television

Television: A medium - so called because it is neither rare nor well done. ~Ernie Kovacs

Most of the TV I watch is what might be called documentary television: History Channel (both flavors), Discovery Times, Science Channel, and so on. I do this because most of the rest of television is – how can I delicately say this – crud. Like so many American kids, I grew up with the television on, so, like so many American adults, I have the addiction . I need my TV in the evening, even though, more often than not, I might be reading or even writing a blog entry (like this one). When I do pay attention, it's because one the aforementioned channels actually has a good program on.

Sometimes, though, there are a couple of potentially good programs on at the same time, so it behooves me to be able to quickly determine a potentially good program from a crummy one. I watch TV to relax while getting a little intellectual stimulus, which explains why I'm not watching network television or movie channels (except Turner Classic; love those Bogart flicks). Thus, if I hit a crummy show, I get aggravated. If I get aggravated, I gripe to my wife, who then gets aggravated – at me. This is a thing to be avoided.

Therefore, I have learned to quickly spot the “Bad Show Ahead” signs. Since there might be someone out there in the ether who is in a similar fix, I'd like to share some of the signs I've identified. These will be a key chapter of my forthcoming book, “Television Sucks”, forthcoming when I get around to writing it.

-- If the introductory narrative is repeated within five minutes after it's initially read, they're padding already. Said introduction will ultimately be repeated after each commercial break, of which there will be many.

-- If said introductory narrative is filled with questions like “What secret is hidden ...”, “Could they really be in the tomb of ...”, or the ever popular “Would they be able to find ...”, you're in for a long evening. The answers will be “Nothing important”, “No”, and “Not in this lifetime.”

-- Mounting expeditions is a complex business. However, if a great deal of time is being devoted to buying the supplies, getting the permits, and wandering around open air markets, this group isn't going to find much, if they, in fact, ever get where they're supposed to be going.

-- After the first commercial, you get a “The show so far” sort of summary. Essentially, they repeat almost everything that was said in the first segment. Leave now, because they're going to do this after each commercial. By the third break, the entire period between commercials will be filled with the summary.

-- These shows don't have a huge budget, so some repetition of scenes is forgivable. If, however, the same scenes are shown repeatedly, they not only had a small budget, but they had a small script they had to pad. Might be a good night to check out the old movies.

-- If the director seems compelled to shoot everything in fuzzy focus or jiggling camera mode, the show is going to stink. I guess they're trying to take your mind off the lousy content by giving you a headache.

-- Watch out for the “some experts” syndrome, as in “Some experts say that the Pyramids couldn't possibly have been built without modern cranes” or “Some experts think black holes are actually purple.” I don't know who these idiot “experts” are, but their main purpose in life seems to be to make the show's discoverer-of-the-obvious look good.

-- Never, ever watch a show with “Mega” or “Super” in the title. The same mini-brain that can't find a properly descriptive title wrote the script. You're also in for an evening of imagined death and destruction at the hands of the Mega- or Super-whatever.

-- The minute they mention Atlantis, the Bermuda Triangle, or Bigfoot, see what's on the Food Channel.

-- If the host or main investigator is dressed up like Indiana Jones but sounds like a game show host, the odds of this being a good program just went up to lottery levels.

-- If the show purports to re-examine some historic event using forensics, just go ahead and watch the CSI flavor-of-the-night. At least there you might be surprised at the findings.

-- If the show has a movie tie-in, you are in for a serious drivel-fest.

I've watched some very good programs on these channels. But, I've seen some serious stinkers that contained misinformation, sometimes passed off as “previously theorized” or, worse, as “facts”. Others have taken fifteen minutes of content and tried to stretch it into a full hour (and failed miserably). Others have spent much time teasing the viewer into thinking something great was going to be found or discovered, only to end with nothing found or experiments failing.

However, if it's a choice between “Desperate Housewives” and yet another theory of how King Tut got whacked, I'll stick with Tut.

At least the Tut show is quiet enough to let me read.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Of Bosnia and Comets

We've got filters for spam, spyware, and viruses that spread on the Internet. What we really need is a filter for idiocy. ~ Anonymous

Archaeology's online magazine has an article by Mark Rose concerning the Bosnian pyramid. I'm sure you've heard about it. The story is rushing around the Internet, having appeared on the BBC site, ABC, and even Slashdot. The short version is that a self-described archaeologist named Semir Osmanagic, or “Sam”, as he's known, claims to have found an immense group of pyramids, cleverly disguised as hills, in Bosnia. Sam is a Bosnian-American contractor from Houston, who fancies himself to be an archaeologist.

There's nothing wrong with having outlandish theories. The fellow who dug up Troy was considered to be a nut, until he found treasures (it was the wrong Troy, but he put everyone on the right track). On the other hand, we have Graham Hancock, who is extreme by his own admission. Hancock is forever trying to prove that there was a civilization 10,000 years ago that, among other things, built the Sphinx.

Osmanagic is going Hancock one better, claiming that the Bosnian “pyramids” date back to 12,000 years ago. Legitimate news services have, for some unknown reason, jumped all over the story. Even the Archaeological Institute of American (AIA) allowed Sam to place a call for volunteers onto their online listing, before someone woke up and quickly removed it.

The Archaeology article points out, politely, that Osmanagic is, well, a nut. In previous writings, Sam has proposed that the Mayans were descended from the survivors of (and you had to know this was coming) Atlantis. Seems the Atlanteans were beings who were descendants of beings who came from the Pleiades. For those of you who don't know, the Pleiades are a star cluster a long, long way from downtown Atlantis.

Well, if you're going to believe in Santa Claus, you might as well believe in the Easter Bunny, too.

It turns out that there's a little problem with Sam's theory of Bosnian Pyramids of the Sun. As noted, he claims they were built 12,000 years ago, a time, geologists tell us, when Bosnia was your basic glacier. So you've got a handful of Paleolithic guys eking out a living toward the end of the Ice Age who managed to find time to build pyramids bigger than those in Egypt.

To his credit, Mr. Rose is not advocating squelching these goofy ideas, as scientists did with Velikovsky's cometary Venus. What he is saying is that news services need to get the story right, and academics need to get cracking and make themselves heard. Many in Bosnia are up in arms over this inane project, partly because it makes the country look foolish, partly because Bosnia's scarce resources don't need to be used up in such a ridiculous manner, and partly because the project is liable to destroy some legitimate sites of Roman and medieval occupation.

But, of course, Sam is no fool. He hasn't tried to appeal to scientists; he went to the government and convinced them that the “pyramids” were a potentially huge tourist trap. Apparently, the Bosnian government was trained to the same level of scientific understanding as the geniuses in our own government. Hopefully, saner voices will be heard, but Sam's publicity machine has a heck of a head start.

As to the comet, there is one coming. I am amazed, given the fact that one of the channels that should know better put out a show a while back describing all manner of death and destruction that a disintegrating comet would cause on Earth (particularly Los Angeles, for some reason). Well, Schwassman-Wachmann 3 is coming apart at the seams, but it poses no threat to the earth. Given the ridiculous reportage on the Bosnian “pyramids”, I am shocked that the same respectable news sources haven't been playing up the potential for an entire mini-series worth of death and destruction.

Every time a new near-Earth asteroid is discovered, the media have a field day predicting the date it will whack into us (in fact, there's another one around right now). Why they're passing on this opportunity is a mystery to me. This could have been the biggest marketing deal since we passed through Halley's Comet in the early 1900's. When it was discovered that the tail contained cyanogen, an entire industry sprang up offering nostrums, gas masks, and various protections against the “potentially deadly” cyanide gas. The fact that the tail is so diffuse and the amount of cyanogen so small that you'd have inhale the entire comet to have any harm come to you was secondary.

Schwassman-Wachmann's closest approach is May 12. There is still time for Billy Mays to roll out his “Comet Protection Kit.”

That's one infomerical I think I'd be willing to watch.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Endangered Science

A little learning is a dangerous thing, but a lot of ignorance is just as bad. ~Bob Edwards

I read Archaeology magazine regularly because I: a) enjoy history; b) feel that we can learn much from finding how our ancestors lived; and c) think grubbing around in the dirt is fun. Paleontology has a similar appeal, except you can add mucking with plaster of paris to digging in the dirt.

Oh, all right, I'm really a knowledge freak. I just like to know more about how we got to be how we got to be. Archaeology has the additional charm of showing us that our ancestors, even those of the so-called stone age, were pretty sharp cookies. After all, as one scientist put it, their brains were just as big as ours, so we shouldn't be surprised that they could be as clever as we. In fact, many times they clearly are more clever, because they had to create things without any historical or scientific precedents. This is real discovery.

In the current issue, there was an opinion piece that I found somewhat disturbing. Basically, a veteran archaeologist was explaining how his own area of expertise was becoming a dying science, at least from the perspective of field discoveries. Sites are disappearing, he explains. Of course. As the population expands and companies and governments decide that every patch of ground needs to be paved, burnt or built upon, there are getting to be fewer and fewer places to dig. Much of the digging that does occur is “rescue archaeology”, with the diggers staying inches ahead of the bulldozers.

Most countries have laws that call for construction to halt when artifacts are found, but the stoppage can't continue indefinitely. Where a team might have spent years on a dig at one time, now they might have a few weeks. And I am sure there are instances when artifacts are found and simply not reported by unscrupulous developers.

I am further inclined to think that if one took a poll of average citizens concerning the covering of valuable historical and pre-historical sites, most would say, “Well, that's a shame, but you can't stop progress.” What they really mean is that they just don't care. As long as American Idol is still on the tube tonight, they are unconcerned that people may have settled the New World 30,000 years earlier than previously thought.

This sort of attitude is not new. I recall the panic in this country when the Soviets put Sputnik into orbit. All of a sudden, everyone became concerned that we weren't educating our kids very well. The Soviets recognized the importance of academic excellence, as long as the brainy ones kept their noses clean and their brilliant minds focused on the Communist Party line. If their minds wandered to thoughts of democracy, they could flaunt their academic brilliance in a gulag.

Meanwhile, in the good old US of A, Johnny couldn't read or cipher, we were short of scientists and engineers, yet the merest discussion of properly funding schools always caused howls from the taxpayers. In other ways, it was just like today. Thanks to the Soviets, though, for about 20 years, education was a major priority. Unfortunately, we got over it.

We don't seem to trust well-educated intelligent people. If we did, we certainly wouldn't elect many of the people we elect. You can see it in campaigns; politicians go out of their way to sound like "ordinary folks". Of course, for many of them, they're having to work pretty hard to get up to this level. But many otherwise intelligent and well-versed politicians go to great lengths to avoid sounding intelligent.

It's reverse snobbery. And it's a return to the blissful ignorance of the 1950's.

There was an editorial in that same issue of Archaeology that boded even more ill for the science. It seems that it's difficult to find an archaeology curriculum. Oh, you can find the bits and pieces of the discipline, anthropology or comparative history and the like. But it's getting hard to actually learn to be an archaeologist. Well, I guess that's not so bad, since you won't have anywhere to dig.

What's happening here is the continuing trend toward specialization. This is nothing new either. Just as the medical general practitioner has practically disappeared, so has the generalist in other fields. Yet it's this sort of person who can gather the varied threads from related disciplines to define the great discovery.

So here we are, rapidly turning into a society of poorly educated specialists who only understand their limited scope of operations. The public at large doesn't care as long the Internet works and CSI:Wherever is on TV. Well, here's a little food for thought, assuming you're still dining. Someday the lights are gonna go out, and no one is going to know how to fix them. And some archaeologist thousands of years from now will be trying to piece together what went wrong.

For his or her time's sake, I hope they figure it out.