Sunday, December 30, 2007

Trading Bad for Worse

Science is a first-rate piece of furniture for a man's upper chamber, if he has common sense on the ground floor. ~Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.

Another day, another whacko theory.

As we are all aware, the prevailing thinking among cosmologists these days is that the universe is mostly made up of stuff that we can't see. One type of stuff is dark matter, for which there is some observational evidence. We don't know what it is exactly, but at least we can see what appear to be its effects.

The other stuff, which makes up most of the rest of the universe is dark energy, which we haven't found, can't define, and have no idea how to detect. Aside from that, it appears to be a sure thing.

Given this state of affairs, it's not surprising that some scientists are looking for alternative theories. I've discussed some alternative views, the "Swiss Cheese" theory (not a great name) and the "local collapse" theory. I've also mentioned the problem raised by some observational evidence that, while indicating the possible existence of dark energy in the ancient universe, doesn't show it behaving properly. It seems that dark energy should have been an attractive force in the early universe. The data, however, indicates that it was repulsive.

Frankly, the whole concept is getting pretty repulsive, if you ask me.

At any rate, another scientist who dislikes dark energy has come up with yet another way to avoid it altogether, by --and you're not going to believe this one -- postulating that time itself is slowing down.

I'm not sure that this is an improvement over dark energy.

The simple fact is that cosmologists have painted themselves into a corner with dark energy and don't know how to get out of it. The truth is that everything cosmologists are hypothesizing depends on know how big the universe is and how much stuff is in it. Figuring out astronomical distances has always been a problem, involving huge assumptions which have been subject to acrimonious debate among cosmologists, physicists, and astronomers. If you can't get a reasonable estimate of how far away something like a quasar is, then you can't accurately assess its speed, size, or red-shift.

If you don't know the answer to those questions, you don't know how fast everything is expanding.

When it comes to the mass of the universe, all of the assumptions are based on statistical extrapolations of sky surveys. The problem is that the statistics are only as good as our ability to determine how much stuff is in a particular volume of space. It now appears we have been fooled, in at least one instance, by stuff that's in the way. It seems that we've just found an entire cluster of galaxies where we didn't think one existed.

That's a lot of missing mass.

So as it stands, we're still not very sure how far away everything is and we're not sure how much of it we've actually accounted for. But, cosmologists and their brethren are still cranking out theories based on the best estimates we've got.

The trouble with that is that we darn well know that our assumptions are shaky. Astronomers are constantly campaigning for tools to help them get better observational data to determine distances and identify celestial objects that are hidden by gas and dust. It's reasonably clear from the problems being encountered by the dark energy crowd that we don't have a good enough handle on these fundamental facts yet.

I understand the need to theorize based on existing data. If nothing else, that sort of work tells us whether the data is sufficient and consistent enough. The answer to that question is, "Not yet." The obvious conclusion is that more data is needed, not more theories that make even less sense.

As Robert Machol once said, "If the assumptions are wrong, the conclusions are likely to be very good."

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Equality vs. Equal Treatment

When you meet someone better than yourself, turn your thoughts to becoming his equal. When you meet someone not as good as you are, look within and examine your own self. ~ Confucius

Recently, James Watson, noted for his contribution to the discovery of the structure of DNA, generated a great deal of brouhaha, angst, and general consternation for expressing concerns over policies concerning Africa because “all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours - whereas all the testing says not really." This comment generated a firestorm of protest from scientists, politicians, and commentators all over the place. It also generated the expected backlash against so-called Political Correctness.

It also led to his resignation and investigations into his own DNA which revealed -- gasp -- that Watson himself has African ancestry.

I am not a fan of James Watson, but this has nothing to do with his recent comments. Anyone who as ever read about his less-than-ethical shenanigans in cynical pursuit of the Nobel has to wonder if scientists ever do research for the sake of actual discovery.

I also am not one who gets on the "Political Correctness is getting out of hand" bandwagon. What a lot of people brand Political Correctness is simple respect for others. I grow tired of people complaining they can't use racist and/or sexist terms anymore without "offending" anyone anymore. The terms were always offensive. What is frequently called "Political Correctness" (such as issues over "Happy Holidays" versus "Merry Christmas") aren't matters of Political Correctness; they're just people being silly.

All of the preceding is just so you understand where I'm coming from when I say that I was not overly put out by Watson's remarks, because, as far as they go, they're correct. Using the standard measure for intelligence, namely IQ testing, Africans do in fact test lower than Europeans. Europeans, in turn, test lower than Asians.

Frankly, geneticists and anthropologists must generally share the view that people are different. And racial groups are different from one another. Every indication is that there are differences in the nature of the brain, resistance to disease, physical abilities, and more. That doesn't mean one group is dumber than another or that one group has more athletic prowess than one another. It means that we are all different, with our own genetic advantages and disadvantages.

There are also cultural differences that have a major impact on our behavior and apparent intelligence. U.S. policies have been notorious for not taking cultural aspects into account. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union often made inroads with countries that didn't want U.S. handouts by making deals. The Soviets would provide technology and assistance but some repayment would be expected (either of loans or through trade agreements). Heads of so-called third world countries preferred to be partners and even debtors rather than children being given gifts by Uncle.

So there are differences between peoples, and those differences need to be taken into account when creating policies toward others. In that context, Watson is correct. Some groups do not score well in IQ tests, so their level of intellectual development is different from others. Here, too, Watson is correct, and policy needs to take that into account.

The problem is that his comment implies (and he may well mean) that Africans are somehow dumber than Europeans and, more importantly, less capable intellectually. I am no expert, but I think there's enough research to indicate that IQ tests evaluate a the level of a certain type of intelligence rather than raw intellectual development.

Even if differences in intelligence are real, the need for equality under the law doesn't change. And I never heard Watson suggest that equal rights legislation be repealed. Firstly, it certainly appears that whatever native, genetic, cultural intellectual advantages or disadvantages people have, they all have similar capabilities. There are African poets, scientists, and politicians (showing that they can be as stupid as we are). Secondly, history has shown that no group that has been deprived of its rights to live and to grow has ever been sufficiently unintelligent not to know that they were being deprived.

Humans are diverse as individuals, nationalities, and racial ethnicity. That diversity is what moves us forward; when humans become homogeneous, change stops, innovation dies. It's not bad to recognize inequalities. It's bad to consider them limiting and, worse, to consider them a reason for one group to dominate or exterminate another. If Watson believes anything of the sort, I'd be very disappointed.

The problem is that some bozos will take Watson's views to justify racist attitudes. Perhaps that's what has the scientific community so nonplussed. I've noticed that geneticists and anthropologists do go out of their way at times to avoid any sort of assertion that a human genetic grouping may have had some sort of superiority to others. Of course, it may be that when characteristics are taken as a whole, the plusses and minuses cancel out, making us all more or less equal.

It really doesn't matter. If all of us, African, Europeans, and Asians alike, weren't already disposed to being bigots, statements like Watson's wouldn't bother any of us. People need to take a long look at why they're so upset with Watson more than they need to criticize him.

Watson may have given us more to think about than he thought.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Glib Science is Bad Science

What I really hope to do is leave you dizzy by the end of this. ~ Lawrence Krauss

When last we met, I was exploring some of the downright silly-sounding science that is making the rounds these days. One of things I mentioned was a claim making the rounds that was prompted by some research published by Dr. Lawrence Krauss of Case Western Reserve University (note: your humble servant is a 1970 graduate of Case Institute of Technology, which is now the "Case" in the merged university's name). Seems that the research got interpreted to mean that observations being made by astronomers are, in fact, shortening the life span of said universe.

Imagine a Schrodinger's Cat experiment taken to it's logical extreme.

As I said in my previous article, I'm thinking that Dr. Krauss is bucking for his own TV show. After all, Donald Johanssen (discoverer of Lucy, the most complete austalopithicene ever found) got to host Nature on PBS. Then, of course, there's Carl Sagan, not to mention Bill Nye, the Science Guy.
Announcing the increasingly imminent demise of the only universe we've got is a way to definitely get attention.

Frankly, Bill Nye is closer to Dr. Krauss' approach than either Dr. Johanssen or the late Dr. Sagan. If it was attention he wanted, it was attention he got, almost all of it negative. So, along comes Dr. Krauss to say, well, maybe that's not exactly what I wanted to say.

Gee, you think?

It seems that Dr. Krauss now admits that he may have been guilty of being a little too witty.
" 'I was too glib,' the scientist said in a phone interview. 'I had just completed this paper about a subject that I found so fascinating, and I was excited to talk to another scientist about it. But I was running off to Nashville from California. And I didn't spend enough time explaining myself.' "

Or perhaps the good doctor was just trying to come up with something that would make a clever quip and forgot that people just don't have a sense of humor about impending doom -- and that scientists don't need yet another reason for the uneducated politicians to cut funding for projects.

One can easily imagine some representative looking for money for his pet bridge-to-nowhere project advocating cutting funding for physics and space research on the grounds that such projects are shortening our collective lifespans.

Now that Dr. Krauss has explained that we're all safe from the prying into the universe by cosmologists, astronomers, and kids with Tasco telescopes, people are blaming the poor science reporting for the misunderstanding. At least one blogger went so far as to apologize to Dr. Krauss and remove his own article on the subject.

Ain't gonna happen here.

Dr. Krauss was too clever for his own good. He decided that being clever outweighed misrepresenting his own research. Whether that research is actually worth the paper upon which it's written is for trained physicists to decide, but a lot of the public will only remember is that astronomers looking for dark energy are bringing us closer to the end of time.

We live in a world where people believe aliens drop down periodically to abduct drunks from the backwoods, or that dinosaur fossils were planted by a supreme being to trick us into thinking that the earth is really more than 6,000 years old, or that plesiosaurs are swimming around in a Scottish lake (or an American one, for that matter). We don't need scientists announcing the potentially imminent destruction of the universe by observatories.

Dr. Krauss needs to quit worrying about being a quotable media darling.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Phunny Physics

Mann's Law - If a scientist discovers a publishable fact, it will become central to his theory.

Maybe it's the Internet's fault. Maybe it's all that time wasted on string theory. It just seems that the number of cockamamie, poorly thought out, hastily published, and generally weird theories that are being published has increased exponentially in recent years. I'll admit it's become a recurring theme in this space, but there's so much of it out there, one could hardly avoid talking about it.

Take dark energy. Dark energy has supplanted dark matter as the most plentiful thing in the universe. The problem is that we don't know what it is and can't detect it except by very indirect inference of observations. Dark energy theory is 10 years old, but we know nothing more about it than we did when it was first proposed. To show how ridiculous the "field" is, Lawrence Krauss of Case Western Reserve University, who is apparently bucking for his own show on The Science Channel, has now put forth a theory that, in the manner of Schrodinger's Cat, we are shortening the life of the universe through our observations.

Evidently, Dr. Krauss decided that his theory of the dark ending of the universe was too depressing, so he needed a way to end it sooner. Of course, everyone knows he's got it wrong because the universe is really going to end in a Big Rip like an exploding balloon, thanks to the runaway expansion of everything. The culprit, of course, is dark energy.

You think that's silly stuff? How about this? One of the little nagging problems in all these dark energy and dark matter theories is that the Milky Way isn't going where it's supposed to be going at the speed it should be speeding. Now, that could be because our calculations for the mass of the universe aren't exactly what they should be or that our estimates of distance and velocity are wrong. There's plenty of precedents for the latter as we have seen distance estimates change radically ever since Edwin Hubble determined that many "nebulae" were actually galaxies running away from us at high speed. Scientists make all sorts of assumptions about "standard candles", some of which haven't held up.

As to the mass of the universe, well, that one is certainly still up in the air.

At any rate, an explanation for the anomalous movement of our galaxy has been proposed that invokes a hidden twin of the Milky Way! Presumably it's the evil twin, Binky. No, I made that up, but it's not much worse than the idea of a galaxy that is hidden by dust and evidently emits no radio waves, X-rays, or infrared radiation, so that it won't be detected by all of the instruments and satellites we've got mapping the sky, even though it's only slightly farther away than the Andromeda Galaxy.

If that isn't enough for you, how about this one? It's been known for some time that the structure of the universe is not a random scatter of galaxies. Rather the galaxies are clumped together in huge clusters with large gaps between them. Recently, the biggest such gap was discovered from some old WMAP data. Now, this area isn't void of matter; it just doesn't have very much. That's interesting enough, but someone has to go another step and announce that this gap is a view into another universe. Of course, this "discovery" is based on string theory, meaning that someone has done a mathematical construct using torturous calculations to indicate that there might possibly maybe conceivably be another universe impinging on ours at the area where the gap occurs.

It's not that I dismiss dark energy and dark matter out of hand; there's some degree of evidence for both. Well, dark energy, as noted in the link above, is shaky at best, and some people don't think dark matter exists either. The latter group invokes modifications in theory of gravity, though, that aren't exactly justified by observation, which, to me, weakens their arguments considerably. As to string theory, well, you know what I think of that (here, for example, among other rants).

What exactly is going on in physics, anyway? It's not that crazy theories aren't interesting and possibly valuable, because they can be. After all, Relativity and Quantum Theory were regarded as pretty nutty in their early days. But twin galaxies, big rips, big fade outs, holes in the universe?
There's crazy and then there's downright silly.

I'm not sure we haven't crossed the line here.