Saturday, December 11, 2010

Whatever Happened to the Future?

Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.~Carl Sagan

As I advance in years, I occasionally hear from those equally as old as I that the world has changed so much in, say 40 years, that we have all this wondrous technology, and who could possibly have imagined it?

Who? Anyone with little or no imagination, that's who.

Consider how much changed between, say, 1900 and 1940, or 1940 and 1980. There were huge scientific and technological advances. In the former period, you have the creation of the automotive industry and telecommunications, not to mention the General Theory of Relativity and quantum mechanics. In the latter period, you have television, space travel, and the Big Bang theory. Now consider, say, 1970 to 2010. And no fair mentioning computers, the Internet and cell phones.


If you were really sharp, you might have mentioned String Theory (which is still the theory of nothing). But, almost anything else you might mention would only be an incremental technological advance. Computers, the Internet and cell phones? Thank the transistor, invented 20 years before. The exploration of space? Werner Von Braun would recognize every technology we're using (in fact, Robert Goddard would, too).

There used to be lots of articles predicting what the world would be like in the year 2000, which generally featured monorails and art deco buildings all over the place. Frankly, I never thought that would happen, because to generate that sort of metropolis would require tearing down existing cities. While that may be a nice idea in some cases, it's not very practical.

There were, however, a lot of ideas floating around that one would have thought would be in place by now. Here are a few that I can't believe are nowhere in sight.

Cheap alternative energy sources - Where are the economical nuclear plants or the solar-power options? No one even thought about wind power back in 1970. Yet, in 1970, the oil companies began strangling us (using OPEC as their stalking horse), giving us a taste of the future. Yet, 40 years on, we're only marginally closer to alternative energy. And, to make matters worse, all we hear is that alternative energy will be more expensive.

Autopilot cars - Get into your car, punch in or, better yet, say your destination, and the car takes you there. All the pieces for this technology are available, yet there's no advance in sight. Why? Well, it would require some sort of infrastructure change, because the simplest model would plant cables in the road. That would take money, which, of course, can be better spent fighting useless wars.

Real Artificial Intelligence - Those of you who think computers are so bleeding amazing ought to think about this one. We don't even have reliable voice recognition systems, much less a computing platform that can actually figure out what to do next. We do, however, have cool semi-transparent windows.

Bases on the Moon and Mars - Von Braun figured we'd be on Mars by 1985. Arthur Clarke pictured us sending a manned ship to Jupiter in 2001. So what have we got? Well, some interesting satellites and planetary probes, to be sure. But manned flight? All we got is $200,000 roller coaster rides, maybe, someday soon.

A REAL space station - In the 1950's, for crying out loud, the idea of a massive, permanent space station (or two or three) orbiting the Earth seemed like a given. What do we have? A cobbled together mess that may become completed a year or two before it's decommissioned.

The 32-hour work week - The old cartoon show, The Jetsons, had a running gag about George's miniscule work week. Jokes aside, though, economists and - ugh - futurists believed that the work week would be shortened by improvements in productivity. Also, by having a short work week, people would have more time to go out and buy stuff, which would increase the need for workers. A shorter work week (yes, at the same pay) would generate greater employment. The computer was supposed to figure heavily in this. Instead the computer has generated so much time-wasting, that people are putting in more hours just to get their actual work finished.

Y'know, it's amazing to think that if someone had been put to sleep in 1970 and awakened in 2010, their first reaction would probably be, "Hasn't anything changed?"

He'd probably just roll over and go back to sleep.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Sextillus Caesar

All television is educational television. The question is: what is it teaching? ~Nicholas Johnson

I have no one to blame but myself, because I should know better. The Science Channel was showing a marathon of history "investigations", including the usual "who killed Alexander the Great" and "who was Jack the Ripper" stuff. They also had the shows about "who killed Julius Caesar" and "who killed Cleopatra".

Given that there seems to be little debate on the subject of Caesar's assassins, it's a little hard to figure what the debate was. Well, it seems that Caesar actually set the whole thing up himself as a very complex suicide. This was determined by an Italian police official who clearly has way too much time on his hands. In scenes eerily similar to the detectives who tracked King Tut's "killer", where they drove back and forth across the desert, we are treated to our intrepid policeman driving, or rather being driven, all over Rome.

Now this is all very scenic, but it seems that had Caesar decided that his afflictions were too much for him to bear, he most likely would have taken the soldier's traditional way out: Have a trusted friend or slave hold a sword and run onto it. He could have taken the appropriate steps to ensure that a civil war did not ensue and still achieved his godhood.

But, compared to the Cleopatra episode, the Caesar one was pure genius.

In the "who killed Cleopatra" we are thrown into the clutches of a "profiler." It's scary to think that there are actually people who get paid to do this. Basically, a profiler is a trained psychological investigator, normally employed in serial crimes, to try to get into the head of the perpetrator and either anticipate the next crime or lead law enforcement to the guilty party.

If one believes television cop shows, these profilers are deadly accurate. In practice, it's a much more hit-and-miss business. But certainly, dealing with a single crime is not their strong suit. But that's not going to stop the profiler chasing down Cleopatra's murderer. The profiler applies nothing but modern attitudes toward the participants and is totally unable to understand why Cleopatra would kill herself because "it wasn't in her character." And Octavian, the guilty party, goes to lengths to cover up the crime because he doesn't want to be seen as having killed Cleopatra.


This is the same Octavian who actively pursued Marc Antony with the singular purpose of defeating him in battle. It was most unlikely that he would have left him off with a hand slap at that point; most likely Antony would have been offered (and accepted) the opportunity to run on his sword. This is the same Octavian who had Cleopatra's son Caesarion hunted down and killed, and made no secret of the fact. So, if he wanted Cleopatra dead, nothing was going to stop him. The nicest thing he might have offered her is the chance to kill herself.

However, what Octavian really wanted to do in all probability was parade Cleopatra through the streets of Rome in a triumph as his adopted father Julius had done to Cleopatra's sister Arsinoe. The difference is that Octavian would most likely have gone through with the traditional ritual killing of the captive after the triumph.

You don't think Cleopatra would think of that?

However, our profiler ignores the psychology of the time, evidently thinking that somehow Cleopatra would want to live on to protect her son Caesarion. Yeah, like that was gonna happen. She was in no position to protect anyone. Her only recourse to avoid the humiliation that lay ahead was to take her own life. Now, whether there was an asp involved or a cobra or some clever poison is really unimportant. What is important is that it's totally unnecessary to ascribe the actual crime to Octavian as a murder.

He won the war. In those days, losers tended to die. That's the way it worked. If they weren't dead, they could come back and make trouble all over again.

They asked a real historian what she thought of the profiler's "report". To her credit, the historian did not endorse the theory of Octavian the Hitman. She took the high road that unusual theories can provoke thought amongst historians and get them to think in different contexts. Translation: "It's malarkey, but it makes for an interesting discussion."

But, like so many of these programs, somehow had to drop the kind of error that leads you to think that no one actually read the script before doing the show. At one point, the earnest announcer tells us that Octavian changed his name to Augustus, in reference to "the month he took power."

Lawsey. If that were the case, he would have taken the name Sextillus. After Octavian had taken the name Augustus, and successfully eliminated everyone who opposed him, the Senate voted to name the month of Sextillus August in honor of the three triumphs Octavian had that month. I can't imagine where they got the idea backwards, but backwards they got it.

Granted you actually had to be listening to hear this boner. It was nowhere near as silly as the airplane flying past the Pyramids being described as flying over the Mojave desert. It wasn't as embarrassing as the Nefertiti fiasco. But, listen, folks at Discover-History-Science: If you're going to have a cockamamie show spouting some ridiculous interpretation of historical events, at least get the simple facts right. Otherwise, you're liable to start turning out stuff like this.

Assuming you haven't already done so.

Sunday, August 08, 2010

Who ARE these guys?

When nature has work to be done, she creates a genius to do it. ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

One of the items in today's news was about the latest inductees into the football hall of fame. When the inductees were announced a few days ago, it set in motion one of those trains of thought that I have which run off in very different directions from the originating idea or news. For some reason, this train led to from hall of fame players to all-stars to a memory of a photograph reprinted in Einstein: His Life and Universe, by Walter Isaacson, which I read some time ago.

The picture is a group photo taken at the Solvay Conference in 1927. Now, group photos taken over 70 years ago generally only have a little curiosity or nostalgia value. This one knocked my socks off. In fact, this one will knock the socks off of anyone who has ever taken a physics course. This snap is the All-Time All-Stars-Hall-of-Fame of Physics.

Take a look at that fuzzy old image. Of course, in the center of the first row, even the most casual follower of things scientific will recognize Albert Einstein. But he is surrounded by a group of scientists whose work has led, for good or for ill, to the world we live in today. For the Solvay Conference of 1927 was called to discuss a crazy new idea: Quantum mechanics.

Quantum mechanics, of course, had been around for some years, kick-started in part by Einstein's paper on the photo-electric effect. But things were heating up, and a lot of ideas were being thrown around. Not only that, but Einstein himself made no secret of his distaste for quantum theory. So, at this conference, he was able to go toe-to-toe with quantum theory's heavy hitters. And what a bunch of hitters it was. At this one gathering, we find:

Max Planck, who some consider as the father of quantum theory;
Marie Curie, a two-time Nobel winner, who discovered the nature of radioactivity;
Neils Bohr, developer of the Copenhagen model of the structure of the atom.

That wold be impressive enough, but you also have:

Werner Heisenberg, creator of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, a fundamental theory of quantum mechanics;
Wolfgang Pauli, creator of the Pauli Exclusion Principle, which is a foundation of modern chemistry;
Erwin Schroedinger, creator of the Schoedinger Wave Equation, that defines the quantum probability function.

We're just getting started:

Paul Dirac, whose equations predicted the existence of anti-matter;
Hendrik Lorentz, whose equations would be used by Einstein in explaining the dimensional contraction in the direction of motion as velocity increases;
Louie deBroglie, who created wave mechanics, underpinning the wave-particle duality of matter.

Oh, and just for grins:

Sir William Bragg, father of x-ray diffraction crystalography;
C.T.R Wilson, creator of the cloud chamber, the distance ancestor of the modern particle colliders.

And that's just the names that are immediately recognizable.

There has probably never been a greater collection of minds in one place in the history of the planet. It's hard to understand what was going on in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that should generate so many minds of this caliber.

The other day, I saw an article where some current "geniuses" had determined there might be a loophole in the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, based on some arcane mathematical model. Another couple of geniuses decided the the Pauli Exclusion Principle could be violated, based on their mathematical model (of course, it would take a time period longer than the universe has existed, but, it could happen).

This is what passes for discovery these days: Trying to prove tried-and-true theories wrong. It can pretty much be guaranteed that these "models' will gather dust on the same shelves where all the attempts to disprove Einstein's theories rest.

We've been pretty short of genius in the last 40 years. It's not that there aren't smart people around: Hawking, Thorne, and Guth ain't dummies. But, physics is bogged down in dark this-and-that (the proportion of the universe made up of dark matter and dark energy changes monthly) and string theory (the incredibly complex pile of mathematics that has yet to actually predict anything). In addition, physicists seem to be totally dependent on the LHC finding the Higgs Boson, without which they'll have lost one of the few new ideas in the last 30 years.

Perhaps it's the data overload. Experimentalists and observationalists have provided so much information that the theorists are overwhelmed. Orbiting observatories and particle colliders have gathered so much information, it sometimes takes years for someone to notice some wonderfully interesting data point.

Maybe that's the difference between Einstein, Planck, Bohr,, and the modern theorists. The new guys wait for something to fall out of the data. Often it seems modern sicientists are taking one observations and running all over the place with it, only to find that the observation isn't ever repeated.

In those olden days, they did the thinking first and then suggested the experiments. Now they do experiments and try to do thinking that will fit an observation or two. Worse, today they create computer models that generate an effect that may or may not actually be observable and crank out a theory to fit the model.

Maybe back then they put the cart and the horse in the right order.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

You Have Been Warned

Every time you think television has hit its lowest ebb, a new type program comes along to make you wonder where you thought the ebb was. ~Art Buchwald

They did it again. History International, a channel that should be a source of factual information once again showed an edition of "Mega Movers" that featured bit about a plane flying over the Mojave Desert, as the plane fly past the Pyramids of Giza.

Once was bad enough, but to reshow the idiocy, along with the other error of fact (the plane never had damage to its cockpit over the Mojave -- or Giza, for that matter) is inexcusable.

I wrote about this before, so I'm not going to rehash the whole thing here, and I recently wrote about the hack job The Science Channel did reporting on scientific fraud. So, I'm not going to go over that ground again. There's no need; it's obvious that the so-called Discovery, Science, and History channels don't really care if the information they report is accurate or not.

Therefore, all viewers should be on notice that so-called facts on these channels may actually represent minority opinions of fringe experts. The programs presented on these channels may misrepresent, misinterpret, or completely misstate facts, evidently because no one wants to be bothered to check them out. Thus, it is incumbent on the viewer to realize that it is the viewer's responsibility to verify fascinating nuggets from these channels before they pass them on to friends, relatives, and co-workers as actual truths.

Viewers need to do this for two reasons. First, everyone has a responsibility to be able to vouch for so-called "reported facts" before passing them on. This is just being a good citizen. Second, passing on such "facts" will lead to terminal embarrassment when the teller is faced with someone who actually knows the subject (or has seen the show and taken note of Pyramids in the Mojave).

You have been warned!

Saturday, March 27, 2010

When Scientists Go Bad

All that glisters is not gold. ~ William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice

Not long ago, there was a program on the Science Channel that should have been very good. It wasn't, because it missed the point, big time.

The program was about Hendrick
Schön, an apparently brilliant young physicist, who was earning the admiration and envy of physicists everywhere for research he was doing on organic transistors. Unfortunately, his papers were based on fraudulent data.

The show I saw was the second try by the Science Channel to report this story. The first time, they spent more time talking alternately about the coming economic crash that would be caused by the "failure" of Moore's Law and by the devastation that would be caused by the solution to the "failure" of Moore's Law, nanobots. In the second version of the show, it appeared that the only concern was our destruction at the prosthetic hand of the nanobots, because they didn't mention Moore at the outset. Unfortunately, by the halfway point of the show, they felt they had to resurrect the ghost of Moore (poetical allusion; he's still alive).

In short over half of each program was dedicated not to the subject of
Schön's fraud but to the mythical end of the world as we know it.

In case you're curious, the economy was going to crash because Moore's Law was about to fail, because technology had reached a tipping point where manufacturing methods would not allow the increase of the number of transistors on a chip. This bit of nonsense ignored the advent of multicore chips, allowing even a modest PC to have the power of multiple computers. It also ignored the research going on in quantum computing, where atomic states substitute for the switching of transistors.

In short, computing power is nowhere near its limit.

The supposed answer to the Moore's Law dilemma was organic transistors or, more descriptively, molecular transistors, which is what
Schön's research was about. The show took the idea of molecular transistors, using carbon-based organic molecules and went all Terminator-II-meets-the Matrix on us. A silvery-gray goo would end up devouring all humanity, so either way, we're all gonna DIE!

This is what passes for science programming these days.

What the geniuses who put these shows together failed to recognize was that there were several huge issues staring them in their collective faces, none of which involved Gordon Moore or gray goo.

For example, how did
Schön manage to get so many papers accepted by Nature and other prestigious publications without the peer-review process catching his data shenanigans?

Or, why did Bell Labs, where
Schön worked, not have some sort of oversight that might have prevented Schön from creating this mess in the first place? And what of his co-authors? Each paper had co-authors, yet none of them had a clue that they were aiding and abetting a fraud?

Or, what do
Schön's actions say about the pressure to publish and the apparent unwillingness of other scientists to actually verify the work? And how many other researchers are doing this stuff?

Or, and this is the ultimate question, why did
Schön do this in the first place? Oh, they give a little lip service to the subject, but it doesn't appear that they talked to anyone who really could offer an opinion.

Oh, and what ever became of
Schön? There is not a word on this subject (he's working for a German engineering consulting firm, in case you're curious).

Fortunately, someone has addressed these questions in a book that I've just started reading, Plastic Fantastic: How the Biggest Fraud in Physics Shook the Scientific World , by Eugenie Samuel Reich. Ms. Reich, a science reporter has dug into
Schön's past and his thinking. In just the early sections I've read, it's clear that Schön really didn't think he was doing anything so wrong because he believed that the underlying science was correct. The inconvenience of the experiments not bearing the theory out was dealt with by cooking the books.

But the book also deals with the larger issues of scientific integrity, the pressure to publish to get grants, the culture in research that would allow something like this to happen, and so on. All of this is fascinating stuff that the Science Channel could have spent a little time discussing if they had bothered to talk to any of the people Ms. Reich has interviewed (like
Schön's boss at Bell Labs).

But that wouldn't be as much fun as doing animations of gray goo oozing over the landscape.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Happy Pi Day!

Some people know pi to trillions of decimal places.. actually they don't, but that's beside the point.~ Lee Houghton

Hopefully, you have discovered this little missive on March 14, for that day is known to many as Pi day. For those of you who are totally dense, the mathematical constant pi, which is the ratio of the diameter of a circle to its circumference, is usually given as 3.14. The more astute among you might recall it as 3.14159 (hence the time of this post).

Actually, pi is an irrational number. This doesn't mean that pi is argumentative or illogical. It simply means that it can't be expressed evenly as the ratio of two integers. In other words, calculate pi however you want to, you'll never get to a point where you're done resolving it. Pi has been calculated to gazillions of digits, mostly by people who have a lot of computer time and no girl friends.

Just to give you an idea, here's a relatively short value for pi: 3.14159 26535 89793 23846 26433 83279 50288. The spaces are there for readability. If you want to impress your friends, you can rattle this one off at the next party you attend. Of course, it'll be the last party you attend, but you'll have had your moment in the sun.

The funny bit is that, after 3.141592, you could probably rattle off any group of digits without fear of contradiction. And you still wouldn't get invited to any parties.

Assuming you've got anyone left listening to you, you could wow them with something like this:

At the twenty-seventh decimal position, you'll find the number 27, flanked by 3 and 9. This is explained by the person quoted above, Lee Houghton, in a comment at Pi Land. Even Mr. Houghton admits he needs a hobby. As do people who regularly frequent a site called Pi Land.

If you want to disseminate some really arcane facts, read this article. I guarantee people will avoid you for weeks.

People love to get all goofy about calendar dates that seem significant, like June 6, 2006. This, of course, can be written 6/6/06, which got some of the nuttier folks around going off about all that number of the beast (666) nonsense. Well, besides 666 being silly, relating 6/6/06 to the number makes no sense because it's got a ZERO in it. I know of no Biblical significance to 6606. Of course, there was a 6/6/6 in the year 6, except that no one was calling it the year 6 back then (that would come much later when some monk or another calculated when Jesus was born --incorrectly, as it turns out). Besides, Revelations hadn't been written yet, so had people been calling it the year 6, they still wouldn't have related any significance to it.

Personally, I think we should have more number holidays, but most people don't bother to remember the math they learned, so making a fuss about February 7, xx18 being related to e, the base of the natural logarithms probably isn't going to draw much of a crowd.

The square root of 2, which relates the value of the diagonal of a square to its sides, is a friendly 1.414 (or 1.41421 35623 73095 04880 16887 24209 69807 to the more precision-minded). But, like e, it's a once-a-century holiday.

Let's face it. The real reason we remember pi is because of that old, old joke:

Father: What did you learn in school today, son?
Son: We learned pi r2.
Father: Well, that's stupid. Pie aren't square. Pie are round.

Sad, but there it is.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Nothing Succeeds Like Failure Redux

The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them. ~ Albert Einstein

I first wrote about SpaceX and its Falcon about 3 1/2 years ago, in a little pastiche that got me into a big go-round with some Space Frontier Foundation folks. It was a passing reference to the Ansari X prize and the fact Falcon 1 had gone blooey in its first launch.

Six months later, SpaceX was trumpeting that their latest failure was in fact a success. Political spin doctors have less nerve than Elon Musk. When the rocket failed because the second stage stopped firing. I noted that this event involved a definition of success with which I am not familiar. Oh, and the cost of this to U.S. taxpayers was a tidy $278 million. I have nothing against using tax dollars to explore the cosmos; in fact, I favor the idea. I'm just against throwing money away.

Apparently fearing others might have the same idea, SpaceX decided that it wasn't sufficient to merely classify a failure as a success. They now declared a rocket that had never completed a flight "operational." As I said, at the time, this is the hubris medal with an oak leaf cluster.

A year later, we find, thanks to the incredible track record of SpaceX (the rocket hadn't killed anyone yet) the government had awarded "an indefinite contract" to the company for their services to deliver supplies and people to the International Space Station.

As if the hilarity hadn't gone far enough, SpaceX tried again a few months later(I mean you gotta get at least one of these things to fly). This time the second stage once again stopped firing. It stopped firing because the first stage whacked into it, due, apparently, to a lack of understanding of how stage separation should be timed. Of course, Elon Musk once again termed this a success.

Remember, SpaceX is trying to build a rocket to carry people. One wonders how their next-of-kin would feel about this sort of "success."

Well, somewhere along the line, SpaceX finally got a Falcon 1 to work. Based on their one real success, they felt ready to move on. Falcon 9 (which is essentially 9 Falcon 1 engines strapped together) is sitting on a pad at Cape Canaveral doing its best to live down to the reputation of its predecessor. In this "success", the engine aborted "nominally", meaning it quit working, but it did it nicely.

At least it didn't blow up. Presumably, that comes later.

The President has already decided that using Robert Goddard technology to go to the Moon doesn't make sense. Unfortunately, he and his advisors haven't come up with anything better yet. Congress is already talking about extending the shuttle. The only good news is that the idea of scrapping the ISS in 2015 (President Bush's bright idea) seems to be losing steam. I don't like the ISS, but putting all that time and money into a project only to bring it down after less than five years of full operational status is a waste of monumental proportions.

I don't know where the space program is going, which is okay, because I don't make the decisions or spend the money. Trouble is, the President, Congress, and, worst of all, NASA don't seem to know either.

Let's hope they at least remember to get everyone off the ISS before they shut it down.