Sunday, April 29, 2007

The Revenge of Sci-Fi

Where should we be if nobody tried to find out what lies beyond? Have you never wanted to look beyond the clouds and stars, to know what causes trees to bud and what changes darkness into light? But if you talk like that people call you crazy... ~ Henry Frankenstein, Frankenstein" (1932)

So, there I was, providing my commentary about the unfair denigration of science fiction, when sci-fi had it's own little say in the matter.

For example, Dr. Chris Stanley, with London's Natural History Museum has identified an ordinary-looking mineral as having the chemical formula sodium lithium boron silicate hydroxide. For dedicated Superman fans, this is the very formula that appears on a case of rock in Lex Luthor's possession, a box containing kryptonite.

Now, Dr. Stanley's mineral is white and harmless, while the kryptonite most people think about is green, but it is amazing to find the same formula occurring in one of the most venerable sci-fi series. By the way, for the Superman purists, it should be noted that, over the years of the original Superman comics, kryptonite turned up in a veritable rainbow of colors including red, gold, and, yes, white.

Sadly, by the naming rules for minerals, Dr. Stanley's rock can't be called kryptonite because it contains no krypton.

Of course, Superman's kryptonite was meteoritic remains of his home world Krypton, which apparently arrived in truckloads on Earth soon after Kal-el did. As one wag once put it in a letter to a comic book, "This stuff must be sold in candy stores the way you scatter it around in the hands of crooks." Krypton was a planet that was larger than Earth (hence providing some of Superman's powers through Earth's lower gravity) and circled a red sun (thus providing the remainder of the Man of Steel's powers, thanks to our yellow sun).

Guess what astronomers have located?

A team of European astronomers have discovered a planet about five times the mass of the Earth circling a red star known by the prosaic name of Gliese 581. Equally interesting is that the planet has a mean temperature between 0 and 40 degrees Celsius (32 to 102 degrees F for the metrically challenged). That means that liquid water could be found on this rock, which means that life could possibly be found there, too.

Then there's this.

Years ago, I read a story (sorry, I can't recollect the author or title) written in the 1930's or 1940's that had the premise that one day Earth's population woke up exponentially smarter. Thanks to their now advanced intellect, they were able to determine that the solar system, in its orbit of the Milky Way, had come out of some sort of galactic cloud that had inhibited intelligence. The story went on to deal with the effects of such a boost in thinking power (including the travails of those who couldn't deal with it). It turns out that there may be such an effect, though not one that affects intellect.

Some time ago, some scientists had determined that the numbers of different species on the planet seemed to go up and down on a 62-million-year cycle. Now, some University of Kansas researchers have provided a theory that the motion of the sun through the galactic plane is the cause of this biodiversity change.

The sun (and we on Earth) orbit the galactic center, but the sun (and we) are also doing a sort of merry-go-round oscillation that takes us in and out of the galactic plane. It turns out that this occurs on a 64-million-year cycle. When we bob out of the plane, we have lost some of the protection provided by being within the plane and the galactic magnetic field. That field, like the sun's and the Earth's, deflects some of the cosmic rays that fill space. Cosmic rays are generally regarded as having an impact in mutation (and in causing clouds, according to some new theories). When we pop out of the plane, we get a bigger dose of cosmic rays and more mutations.

Who knows? Maybe cosmic rays make us smarter, too.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Taking the Sci Out of Sci-Fi

I've always liked the idea of a special Hugo to be awarded (by force, perhaps) to literary authors who write books dripping with themes filleted from mainstream SF and then deny that it's science fiction "because it's not about robots and spaceships". ~ Terry Pratchett

Evidently, "science fiction" is a taboo term to the so-called "intelligentsia" of the world. According to this article, even Battlestar Galactica, which is on the Sci-Fi Channel prefers to refer to itself as "fleshed-out reality."

Fleshed-out reality? A civilization is stupid enough to believe their worst enemy when they say they'll meet with them to talk peace as long as they bring all their battleships with them and leave their home world unprotected so the baddies can wipe it out? That's not any kind of reality; that's stupidity on a galactic scale.

Some critic quoted in the article refers to sci-fi as "fantasy with testosterone," thereby proving that:
  1. He's never read any real science fiction;

  2. He's never read any real fantasy; and,

  3. He's an idiot.
Fantasy and science fiction are entirely different literary forms. There does exist a genre referred to as "science fantasy" which might include something like Star Wars, with its space ships and Jedi mysticism intermingling freely.

The bigger issue to me, though, is the denigration of the term science fiction. Somehow, the genre that includes Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, Isaac Asimov, and Arthur Clarke, has always been regarded as something less than great literature. Teachers would frown on any student who would try to use a sci-fi novel for a book report.

There were exceptions, of course. Some teachers have actually recommended Madelaine L'Engle's A Wrinkle In Time, which surely qualifies as sci-fi. Some works of C. S. Lewis fall into the science fantasy area and are often the subject of literature courses. Of course, both authors are dealing in "allegorical novels" that somehow transcend the baseness of the sci-fi aspect. After "science fiction" is about rockets, robots, time travel, and disintegrator rays.

Some people, notably Paul Allen and several universities still have some respect for the literature of Robert Heinlein, Hal Clement, and possibly even Andre Norton. But, for the most part, it seems that authors and producers feel that calling their work sci-fi puts it into some sort of pulp fiction category. Perhaps it's the works themselves that are pulp. Much of what passes for sci-fi these days is drawn-out soap opera material about relationships and various personal crises, just like everything else that passes for entertainment on the tube these days.

Real sci-fi falls pretty much into two groups. There's "space opera", a spin on the old term "horse opera" which used to refer to westerns. A good space opera story (which may not ever get into space) features heroic heroes, lots of action, and good triumphing over evil in the end. These are basically good old action stories which use science as a hook, mostly to get neat gadgets or monsters into the plot. There's nothing wrong with space operas; many are good entertainment, while some are just plain pulp. That's no different from the mystery genre or the heaving-bodice novels.

But there is also the truly literary sci-fi that deals with large themes, where good and evil are not so easily defined. Many of these stories are as good as anything in the category of "serious" or "classical" literature. Jules Verne was imaging the possibilities of technology while Wells often looked at the potential dangers. Arthur Clarke and Isaac Asimov told us much about the human condition. Hal Clement's stories have a poignancy and universality that can touch anyone.

On the one hand, great stories are great stories, whether set in Victorian England or on a mysterious spaceship called Rama. On the other hand, the science aspect of science fiction sets it apart because it can deal with problems we haven't even had yet.

Maybe the current downplaying of sci-fi is just part of the western world's general lack of regard for science. Science, although it provides us with the world in which we live, is the province of "eggheads" and "geeks." Carl Sagan often talked of the deplorable lack of scientific knowledge within the general public. Perhaps those who are afraid of "science" being appended to their "fiction" are afraid that viewers and readers will be turned off because they might actually learn something.

Maybe it's time to recognize that many of the sci-fi authors were warning us of precisely this situation.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Probing Warps

Once you can accept the universe as matter expanding into nothing that is something,
wearing stripes with plaid comes easy. ~Albert Einstein

Well, here's a news flash, if ever there was one. It seems that Einstein has been found to be right -- again. The BBC reported that the NASA Gravity Probe B satellite, in orbit for three years now, has confirmed that mass does, in fact, warp space.

I'm sure you've seen the two dimensional analog to this. You have a large ball resting on a rubber sheet. The ball causes the sheet to deform because of the ball's mass. Anything coming close enough to the ball follows the warp in the sheet and proceeds to sprial in toward the ball. Einstein's Theory of General Relativity predicts that three dimensional space is warped in the same way.

There's another effect as well. If the ball spins, it will drag the rubber sheet with it, ever so slightly. The more massive the ball, the more obvious the drag. General Relativity predicts this "frame dragging" as well as the warpage (geodesic effect). Gravity Probe B has provided evidence of the warp and could do the same from frame dragging, using the most precisely manufactured gyroscopes ever made. All that's left is to do some more serious number crunching.

Now one would think that physicists would be whooping it up over yet another proof of the beauty and accuracy of Einstein's theories. And perhaps most are at least quietly satisfied, but the BBC article says that Professor Tim Sumner couldn't resist the obligatory dig that "other tests could start to reveal cracks in General Relativity, suggesting where modifications might be made."

"There is an expectation that at some level we will expose a departure from pure general relativity as envisaged by Einstein," Professor Sumner is quoted as saying.

Now, I am certainly enough of a realist to recognize that anyone's theories, even Einstein's are subject to modification and outright disproof. But, few theories have managed to pass the test of time like Einstein's.

In this piece, I noted this article which, based on observations of a binary pulsar pair bore out not one, but three areas pf GR: Gravitational redshift, Shapiro delay, and gravitational radiation and orbital decay. And, if I were Professor Sumner, I wouldn't hold my breath expecting frame dragging to fail. Observations taken in 1997 appear to have confirmed the effect, based on X-ray observations of gas moving around a black hole.

I think sometimes that some physicists are so anxious to disprove Einstein because of his angst about quantum theory. Einstein didn't like quantum theory. No, I tell a lie: Einstein hated quantum theory. The concept of a probabalistic universe was anathema to him. Despite his revolutionary view of space and time, matter and energy, Einstein still saw the universe to be as deterministic as Newton had. As a result, Einstein spent much of his life seeking the Grand Unified Theory that would unite all the forces at all levels under one simple (at least to the average physicist) equation.

While he was bending his efforts to this, much of the world of physics passed him by. I think some scientists have held this against him, wondering what he might have accomplished has he embraced quantum theory.

Perhaps it's the light speed limit. We all want hyperdrive so we can start exploring the galaxy, but Einstein's imposition of the speed of light as an unattainable speed puts a damper on that sort of thing.

Scientists should keep on testing Einstein's predictions, of course, because we learn more about the universe in the process. But they shouldn't seem surprised when Einstein keeps coming up trumps. As for me, I'm going back to wearing stripes and plaids. When my wife complains, I'll tell her Einstein said it's okay.

Let's see if she can prove him to be wrong.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Maybe Jesus Is Buried in Grant's Tomb

Since, along with, most probably, the majority of archaeologists who deal with the ancient Levant, I have been asked about the question of the supposed tomb of Jesus and his family …, I thought that I should join the very clear message of the responsible archaeological community and say — this is HOGWASH!! (excuse my French!). ~ Dr. Aren Maeir

When I wrote recently about the Discovery Channel's sorry attempt at Biblical archaeology, The Lost Tomb of Jesus, I didn't realize that Simcha Jacobovici was, in fact, the Naked Archaeologist. As I noted in the piece, I had no intention of watching the program, so I never made the connection.

I should have known.

Mr. Jacobovici claims the James Ossuary is real despite the arrest of Oded Golan for forgery and the discovery his "antiquities" factory. He has stood on a mountain and claimed to have determined that it is Mt. Sinai so fervently that one expects him to point to a spot and further claim that the Ten Commandments tablets came from there.

Mr. Jacobovici plays so fast and loose with his archaeological "investigations", he makes Graham Hancock look profound by comparison.

At any rate, it seems that many of the scholars who were quoted or were shown making comments in the show are now "revising" their conclusions, a nice way of saying they wish they'd never had anything to do with it. Dr. Stephen Pfann, who mentioned in the earlier article, has now summarized both the claims of the show and the various corrections, clarifications, and outright retractions by scientists who appeared in or were cited in te program.

To show how bad it is, even an out-there site like The Bible UFO Connection (which is about as out-there as it gets) has a page of quotes lambasting the show.1

That's pretty bad.

But what is really bad is that reputable scientists allowed themselves to be drawn into this farce in the first place. All the "I never said" and "I didn't mean" doesn't make up for the fact that most of the people who watched the show and bought into the nonsense are never going to read Dr. Pfann's compilation of facts. They won't see the article in the Jerusalem Post, and it's unlikely Discovery will air a documentary saying that Tomb was just bad science for them to see.

In fact, despite the fact that one of the History/Discovery channels actually showed the investigation that eventually discovered the Golan fraud, I still talk to people who think the James Ossuary is really the box in which the brother of Jesus' bones reposed. It's worth noting that the investigative documentary has not been shown over and over like episodes of Naked Archaeologist. Truth is just not as much fun as fiction.

Anyway, how did these respectable scientists get themselves into this? I don't know for sure, because I most certainly was not there during the interview process. Perhaps they were victims of clever editing; maybe they didn't really look at the evidence; or they might have been asked highly speculative questions which they chose to answer as "possibilities" which is not the same as saying "probable."

One thing is certain: They certainly aren't being speculative now.

The person who really gets the short end of the stick here is Amos Kloner. Professor Kloner is the man who originally oversaw the excavation of the tomb in 1980. His work has been lost in all of this; worse, in the minds of those who will remember only the documentary, he will be associated with it.

Simcha Jacobovici's work needs to be relegated to the trash heaps along with "Chariots of the Gods" and theories of aliens building the pyramids.

1 To the folks at Please don't post comments complaining about my attitude toward your site. I'm sure you're very sincere. I respect that even though I think you're a few bricks shy of a load, and nothing you can say is going to change my opinion. If, on the other hand, you're not sincere, then you should be ashamed of yourself for not labeling your site as fiction.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

You Gotta Know When to Hold 'Em

Canada Bill Jones' Motto: It is morally wrong to allow suckers to keep their money. Supplement: A Smith and Wesson beats four aces.

It has long been known that mathematicians have a bias toward games of chance. In fact, some people become mathematicians to try to find ways to beat the roulette wheel or win at the crap table. Now it seems that a physicist claims to have plumbed the secrets of the poker game, Texas Hold 'Em.

For those of you who don't indulge in losing money at cards, allow me to briefly explain Texas Hold 'Em. However many players are around the table, two players put money in (ante up) prior to the deal. One puts in twice as much (the big blind) as the other (the little blind). This is a little different from other games, where everyone antes the same amount. After the ante, each player is dealt two cards, at which point they can bet or fold. The dealer then lays down three cards (the flop) and players bet again. The dealer then deals out another card (the “turn”) and a final card (the “river”; don't you love my grasp of terminology?). Betting takes place after each card. The winner is the player who can make the best hand using his dealt cards plus any three of the community cards.

The variant that gets everyone excited is No-Limit Hold 'Em, because anyone can bet all their chips at any time. This means that a player can become very wealthy or very broke in an instant.

Thanks to television, Texas Hold 'Em has gotten to be big stuff, with Internet sites popping up all over running tournaments, and even giving people the chance to win a place in a major real tournament. All sorts of books and articles abound with information on how to win and become rich and famous.

Now physicist Clement Sire claims to have applied his mathematical skills to create a model that predicts certain aspects of Hold 'Em.

I'm not sure if I'm more depressed that he wasted his time doing this or that Science News thought it was worthy of reporting.

Here are some of Mr. Sire's insights:

  • When a player has double the average number of chips held by the players at large, he or she will be in the top ten players.
  • The blinds are increased as the tournament goes on. This causes the number of players in the tournament to decrease more rapidly.
  • The number of chips held by the chip leader is a function of the number of the players in a tournament.

Congratulations, Mr. Sire, you have discovered the rules of a zero-sum game.

In a typical tournament, players pay an entry fee, which has nothing to do with how much money the player starts with. The starting “bankroll” is set by the tournament organizers. The players aren't playing for actual money at the table; they play to eliminate other players and win prize money which has no relationship to the value of the chips earned during play.

So, there's a set number of chips to be won. The more players in the tournament, the more the chip leaders will get as they knock out other players. So, of course, chip leaders will have higher totals if there are more guys in the tournament, because there are more chips to be won.

As to the nonsense about the average number of chips, it stands to reason that anyone who is in the top ten will have more than twice the average chips. As players are eliminated, the average chips per player rises, but since the most common way of eliminating players is when one goes “all-in”. This means large numbers of chips can change hands abruptly, but it also means that the balance of chips will tend to be uneven. In fact, without doing an in-depth analysis, I would guess that within a relatively short time in any tournament, the 80-20 rule will come into play; that is, 20 % of the players will have 80% of the chips. But, because of the all-in betting, which 20% is holding those chips can change suddenly.

What Mr. Sire didn't seem to be able to discover is a strategy that might govern winning. Oh, he found that players have tendencies about going all-in, and when they vary from those tendencies, they don't do well. This isn't a big surprise either, because successful players tend to lose when they get out of their normal rhythms.

We are told Mr. Sire is a good card player, which would explain his interest in crunching numbers. But he certainly hasn't discovered any secrets. On the other hand, I don't play cards well, but I have learned some secrets, and I'm glad to share them.

  • Good players are those who can bet intelligently enough to hang around until good cards come their way.
  • Good players pick up on tendencies in their opponents and bet accordingly. Real good players can break their tendencies just often enough to fool the good players. Great players recognize when the real good player is doing that.

  • Impatience will cost any player. Even great players who lose a big hand will suddenly turn into amateurs trying to get back into the game quickly.

  • Luck beats skill any day of the week. The greatest player in the world is going to lose when he holds three aces and the other guy hits a full house on the last card.

I'll be waiting to hear from Science News to report my amazing findings.

Friday, April 06, 2007

A Change of Tune

The improver of natural science absolutely refuses to acknowledge authority, as such. For him, scepticism is the highest of duties: blind faith the one unpardonable sin. ~T. H. Huxley

I've gone on at length about theories that seem to be published just to be publishing something and theories that seem to depend on overly complicated methods to explain something already suitably explained. It seems that some other people are beginning to feel that way, too.

For example, take "snowball earth." It's been theorized that, around 600 million years ago, we had the ice age to end all ice ages. The entire planet was encased in ice and might have remained so had not volcanism pumped enough greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere to start warming things up again. A lot of the evidence for this depends on the existence of "drop stones" at equatorial latitudes where glaciers shouldn't happen.

Now, a UK-Swiss team has found that, within that time frame, there were hot and cold variations in the climate, based on weathering of sediments. The data doesn't eliminate the possibility of a complete global freeze, but it certainly puts limits on it. It will probably force a review of the snowball scenario to see how the weathering data can be fit into the theory.

Meanwhile, not to long ago, the Science Channel had a nice pair of programs discussing how the demise of the dinosaurs resulted in the rise of the mammals, which has been the established view for some time now. But an international team has completed the most comprehensive "family tree" ever done for mammals. Their conclusion is that mammals were doing some serious diversifying prior to the extinction event that occurred 65 million years ago. More importantly, some of these mammals from the Cretaceous are ancestral to today's mammals.

Note that the team is not saying that really big mammals were running around biting T-Rex on the toes. But, they are saying that the roots to us were already forming while the dinosaurs were roaming the earth.

But the most interesting potential shocker involves dark energy. When it was discovered some years ago that the expansion of the universe, contrary to intuition, was increasing, not slowing down, the mechanism invoked to explain the effect was dark energy. In fact, pretty soon, cosmologists were saying the 75% of the universe was made up of something we can't see, can't detect, and can't define properly.

Evidently, that began to bother some people, in particular a physicist at CERN who holds that dark energy may not be needed to explain the expansion speed-up. Syksy Rasanen's theory smacks of the old "great attractor" except on a local level. Basically, his theory says that local mass concentrations (like bunches of galaxies) actually experience a slowing of expansion, but, in the huge voids that exist between such concentrations, the expansion is unchecked. As the dense regions become more compact, the expansion factor for the voids becomes a higher component of the overall average expansion rate. So, as the dense areas become more compact, their influence on the void areas declines, and the expansion factor appears to increase.

So, you don't need a repulsive force provided by dark energy to account for the apparent increase in the expansion rate, because that's all it is: An apparent increase.

Not surprisingly, this theory isn't sitting well with the dark energy crowd. But, on the other hand, Rasanen doesn't need to invoke any sort of exotic forces to get the same result. Occam's Razor would seem to favor him.

It's intriguing that we suddenly have a spate of, what might be called, "debunking" theories in contrast to the trend of exotic and sometimes downright strange theories that need cosmic rays, strange forces, and torturous mathematics to work. That doesn't mean that the simpler theories are right; sometimes life, the universe, and everything does turn out to be complex. But it is interesting to see a slightly different approach based on actual evidence. rather than saying, "As soon as we get some new information, we'll be shown to be right."

Sometimes you have to go where the data leads you until some new data leads you somewhere else.