One of the key things scientists understand is that data has to be viewed within its proper context.
Consider the recent results of a National Science Foundation study (Science & Technology: Public Attitudes and Understanding). A very troubling statistic has come out of this report:
1 in 4 Americans doesn't realize that the Earth revolves around the Sun
It's hard not to view this fact with alarm. In the years since Galileo Galilei, the heliocentric model of the solar system has been widely accepted. Isn't it incredibly alarming to think that one-fourth of Americans don't know this basic astronomical fact?
Now consider this response in context: Europe and other nations did far worse! Only two-thirds of European respondents got the question correct. (Looking at table 7-8 in the report, it's clear that we were about on par with responses from India and Malaysia, though South Korea did much better on this question.)
So, yes, the fact that one-fourth of Americans appear to believe in the geocentric model of the solar system is problematic and troubling ... but looking at the data overall (again, table 7-8), we see that America's knowledge of basic scientific facts exceeds the most recent data from other countries around the world.
There is even hope for science's role within the culture war! Americans got very low scores on knowledge about the Big Bang and human evolution, but more detailed analysis of the data shows that this is not actually a sign of scientific ignorance. As the Highlights from the report explain:
A survey experiment showed that 48% of respondents said they thought it was true that "human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals," but 72% gave this response when the same statement was prefaced by "according to the theory of evolution." Similarly, 39% of respondents said that "the universe began with a huge explosion," but 60% gave this response when the statement was prefaced by "according to astronomers."
In other words, when asked what science tells us, the responses are on par or better than the responses of the other nations. A majority of Americans are aware that scientists believe in the Big Bang and human evolution. The problem is that, in these areas, they don't believe what science tells us about the history of the universe and our species. (See my previous post about the flaws in this thinking.)
So it does seem like we're doing a good job in distributing the knowledge of scientific facts. The key is imparting the understanding that these "scientific facts" are actually, you know, facts.
Physicist Max Tegmark has a remarkable hypothesis: that the ultimate form of our physical reality is a mathematical structure. In his new book, Tegmark gives an incredibly lucid account of the current physical understanding of our universe at the largest level of cosmology and also at the smallest level of individual particles and quantum physics. The result is his mathematical universe hypothesis, and the even more astounding suggestion that there exists an entire multiverse of parallel universes representing entirely different mathematical structures.
Touching on our deepest yearning to answer the question "What is reality?," Tegmark's first book for a popular audience does not assume any deep understanding of current physics, but by the end will lead you to the very limits of what we might expect reality to be like.
For more, see our full review of Our Mathematical Universe: My Quest for the Ultimate Nature of Reality.
It is easy to casually disagree with someone and dismiss most of what they say, especially when they're almost entirely wrong. That is the tactic that most science sources have used in responding to the recent "great debate" between Bill Nye (the Science Guy) and creationist Ken Ham, which took place earlier this week. However, I think it's far more fruitful to explore the valid points made by the creationist side of the argument, which point us toward a deeper understanding of how and why science actually does work.
The rather lengthy debate is available for viewing online and the point under consideration was:
Is Creation a viable model of origins in today's modern scientific era?
This was not a debate over the existence of a creator deity in general, but of a specific, 6,000-year-old creation scenario. Ken Ham is a young Earth creationist, the president of Answers in Genesis and the Creation Museum. He believes that God directly created the universe, the Earth, humanity, and all other life on Earth about 6,000 or so years ago, following a literal interpretation of the Biblical story of Genesis.
It would be easy to anticipate that we could just dismiss him, but he's clearly an intelligent guy and has spent much time formulating his explanations to justify his belief system. And it might surprise you to learn that (in my opinion, at least) he made a number of extremely valid points.
The Role of Assumptions in Science
I'd like to focus my attention on one of Mr. Ham's core tactics: distinguishing between observational/experimental science and origins/historical science. His argument in this regard is that in order to construct a theory of origins, scientists have to make assumptions, and that these assumptions must, by necessity, move beyond the observable evidence.
And, as formulated above, it's certainly a valid statement. The current age of the universe, of the Earth, and of the various animal species located on it is calculated as ancient using a variety of assumptions, and these assumptions can not (and should not) be beyond question.
For example, one of my major objections to a young-Earth creationism from a physics standpoint has to do with the speed of light. One of the key discoveries of the last century of physics is Albert Einstein's theory of relativity, which dictates that light photons always move at the same constant speed in a vacuum. We know this speed, and there are various astronomical methods (which are widely accepted based upon our understanding of physics) for calculating the distances to stars. Using this, we know that when we look at stars, then we are actually looking at that star as it looked in the past ... however many years ago the light left the star, which can be calculated using the distance and the speed of light. We know that there are many stars - including some visible to the naked eye - that are so far away the light we are seeing would seem to have left them much more than 6,000 years ago.
All of that having been said, however, just because we are confident that we see light moving at a constant speed in labs on Earth doesn't necessarily mean that this assumption should never be called into question, nor that we should be completely unskeptical about its validity throughout the universe at large. Completely independent from young-Earth creationism, there are cosmologists who are interested in and investigating the concept of variable speed of light (VSL) cosmology to answer completely unrelated open questions in cosmology. However, there is no real suggestion among scientists at large or those studying VSL that this variability would even conceivably be sufficient to justify a 6,000 year age to the universe, and it seems to not even be widely adopted within the creationist community.
Still, I think that Mr. Ham's point is important to keep in mind for those interested in science. We can very easily embrace a viewpoint that science is a completely objective discipline, insulated from human subjectivity. All scientific investigations do require a set of assumptions, a worldview if you will, in order for them to be extended beyond the immediate observations into a viable scientific hypothesis, which is then tested against the evidence, in the hopes of constructing a broad overall theory to describe the phenomena (and hopefully other phenomena).
The goal of any theory in science is that you get more out of it than you put into it. In terms of an ancient universe, probably nothing in physics is more significant than the discovery of the cosmic microwave background radiation. The presence of this radiation in the universe was predicted by the Russian physicist George Gamow, based upon calculations of the expected energy left over from the Big Bang. The Big Bang itself was not a theory, but rather a prediction that fell out of the theory of relativity and the observational evidence of an expanding universe. When this radiation was actually discovered throughout the universe, it was viewed as significant confirmation of the Big Bang model.
And the opposing steady state model fell by the wayside ... but Fred Hoyle, the brilliant physicist who developed the steady state model, refused to abandon it, and surrounded himself by a group of like-minded individuals who spent years trying to interpret all of the evidence in a way that could justify his model. The profound failure of Hoyle's approach is detailed in the book Brilliant Blunders ... and is a good example of the scientific flaws that can be seen in Ken Ham's approach to science. (See my previous post: Role of Consensus in Science)
Naturalism as a Core Assumption
Mr. Ham also repeatedly brings up naturalism, particularly in a recurring slide that says:
Public school textbooks are using the same word science for observational and historical science. They arbitrarily define science as naturalism and outlaw the supernatural. They present molecules-to-man evolution as fact. They are imposing the religion of naturalism/atheism on generations of students.
Here is, I think, one of the weakest points of Mr. Ham's overall argument, because naturalism in science is not a religion: it is a methodological requirement. When you are conducting science, you simply must assume naturalism. The religious, young-Earth creationist inventor of the fMRI machine could not have done it if he did not assume natural causes in constructing it. If you cannot assume that a natural phenomenon has a natural cause, and that applying the tools of science - which include reason and logic - you can gain insights into those natural causes (and other relationships), then you cannot do science. It's just not possible. If you go into an investigation without the assumption of a natural cause at work, then you are wasting your time, because so far as we know those are the only sorts of causes that science is equipped to discover.
So what Ken Ham is really suggesting above is that public school science textbooks should teach that sometimes science just doesn't work.
Now, naturalism can certainly be more than a methodological requirement. Certainly many people who go into the sciences do so because they believe not just that naturalism is a useful tool, but because they believe that fundamentally naturalism is the way the universe functions. In this sense, it is a metaphysical foundation for many scientists, both atheist and theist.
But one of Ken Ham's arguments is that teaching Creationism will in no way diminish America's leading role in scientific research and innovation. However, it seems like undermining naturalism within science classes - the very place where it plays a central role - cannot help but hurt scientific interest among those who would be most inclined toward embracing it. There would certainly still be scientists, but these would now be scientists who believe that science is the primary way of understanding the universe. As Ken Ham has pointed out in the debate, these scientists can be perfectly valid at doing observational and experimental science, but I can think of no brilliant theoretical physicists who embraced this view.
Even notable theist scientists, such as Sir Isaac Newton and Galileo Galilei, were driven by the belief that the universe functioned according to natural laws, which could be discovered by exploring those natural laws. In fact, the very notion that these natural laws were eternal began as a philosophical and theological stance!
It seems to me therefore that from a practical standpoint, we run into the following problem with the young-Earth creationist position as presented by Ken Ham:
If we allow supernatural explanations for natural events in science classes, how do we define precisely when we move from natural to supernatural explanations?
The failure to answer that question, I think, points to a broader problem ... and, indeed, to the real clash between creationism and evolution.
"Creation Science" Teaches That Science Doesn't Work
Let me step away for a moment from Ken Ham's points to one of the most salient points made by Bill Nye during the debate, which was that science is both the set of facts we have about the natural world and also the process we have for obtaining and interpreting those facts.
Fundamentally, Ken Ham's argument is that science is wrong. And it's not just a little wrong. It's massively wrong. In fact, science just doesn't work as a means of understanding our universe. It might give us some cool gadgets in the present, but there is some point (particularly in the past) where it all breaks down.
- Any investigation in science requires adopting a stance of naturalism: that is, assuming that natural phenomena are caused by natural causes.
- In addition, science investigating the past (which Ham calls "historical science" or "origins science") does require additional assumptions, because there are components of the investigation we cannot directly view.
- One core assumption is that the laws of the universe are "eternal," or at the very least that any time-dependent variability can be discerned from the present state of the universe by scientific inquiry.
So what does it take for Ken Ham's creation science to be true? First, it requires that all three of the above are flawed, at least when it comes to investigating origins.
It means far more than that, though, because the age of the universe is not a minor thing. Indeed, nearly every aspect of our modern scientific understanding of nature points to an ancient universe. Ken Ham rightly points out that scientific investigations into origins require assumptions ... but what he doesn't point out is that for his view to be correct, these assumptions have to be entirely incorrect. And these assumptions don't come from just one area of science, but rather from different disciplines independently. If the Earth and the entire universe are only 6,000 years old, then independent assumptions from geology, astrophysics, cosmology, biology/zoology, atomic physics, and various other disciplines are wrong. It would seem like the whole enterprise of science is, in fact, fundamentally flawed!
Because, you see, these assumptions were not the product of a collaboration. They are not the results of a handful of scientists getting together and contriving a way to reach the result they wanted, but rather the product of the scientific community at large, constantly investigating new hypotheses, challenging them, testing them, debating them, and so on. The result is a robust scientific description of the history of the universe that arises out of this interplay of disciplines.
Where will you find scientists gathered together, creating elaborate arguments in an attempt to justify a pre-conceived conclusion? Well, Fred Hoyle's attempt to support the steady state model would work, but few people are supporting that these days, since there's no evidence. No, today you could go to creationist groups like Answers in Genesis. For an example, I strongly recommend a quick walk-through on this essay trying to work around the speed of light objection to a young universe. It is a good read and a sign that the people formulating these ideas are anything but stupid. It is an intelligent, clear, and honorably candid attempt to construct a viable explanation about how to reconcile the current scientific evidence with a seemingly incompatible desired conclusion.
As Bill Nye said, science is both the body of facts about nature and the method of obtaining and interpreting those facts. It is on this last point that the real scientific fail comes in Creation Science. Interpreting the evidence with a pre-ordained conclusion is not, in any sense of the word, good scientific method ... as Fred Hoyle demonstrated.
So, in the end, the biggest lesson we can learn from Ken Ham is how to not perform science.
Yesterday, I discussed some of this year's "Annual Question" answers at Edge.org, which was:
What scientific idea is ready for retirement?
The responses were a diverse set of scientific ideas from scientists and thinkers across a wide range of disciplines. I also came across several cases where suggestions directly contradicted each other, which certainly brings into question how much weight they should be given. This was expressed quite well in a great comment from one of our readers, going by the handle buddha:
When did the scientific method become about consensus?
Is truth derived from mere quantity of opinion?
The only thing that needs to be retired is the giving of power to authoritarian ideas.
While I certainly agree with the final point, I'd like to focus on the two rhetorical questions. They are posed in a way that is supposed to imply a dismissal of the answers to the Edge.org question. However, a bit of reflection makes it harder to answer the two questions with the unqualified dismissal that buddha seemed to be seeking.
The fact of the matter is that the scientific endeavor is about building consensus. More than that, it is - in a very real sense - impossible to conduct science as an individual. Not just impossible in practice, because you couldn't gain access to the knowledge and training you'd need, but also impossible in principle.
The reason for this is that science requires an effort to build an as-objective-as-possible model of reality and, so far as we can tell, humans are extremely good at fooling themselves into believing what they want to believe. This is why science is conducted not by a group of isolated individuals discovering independent facts about the world, but instead as a community that is continually debating not only the facts themselves, but also the underlying significance of and relationships between those facts.
In other words, science absolutely requires teamwork, and it requires diverse teamwork. Even more than collaborators, successful scientists need others who will not only tell them that they're wrong, but who will actively attempt to prove that they are wrong. Consequences of the hypothesis are explored in great detail, using a method that has been called organized skepticism.
But science is not merely about disproof (despite Karl Popper's attempt to define it that way with his principle of falsifiability), but also about creating positive theories that make distinct predictions about a system's behavior. As these theories continue to predict the results of experiments and observation, the confidence in the theory grows as a consensus within the scientific community.
Assume for a moment, however, that a scientist were not part of such a community, and that consensus were not a goal, but instead the scientist pursued scientific investigations primarily alone. You don't even have to be alone. The physicist Fred Hoyle spent years working on his steady state theory, for example, surrounded by a group of scientific acolytes who, it's often said, rarely challenged his basic concepts. For decades, Hoyle was able to focus almost exclusively on the pieces of evidence that conformed to his theory, ignoring any evidence that contradicted his theory. (This is covered at length in the recent book Brilliant Blunders.) This is called confirmation bias, which I personally consider one of the most prevalent psychological challenges to accurately conducting science ... mitigated only through the aforementioned organized skepticism within the scientific community.
So back to buddha's second question: "Is truth derived from mere quantity of opinion."
My answer: "No, truth is not derived from the mere quantity of opinion, but knowledge of truth is derived from a systemic, scientific exploration of different opinions."
And having a bunch of experts at this exploration offer their ideas of what accepted assumptions should be challenged seems to me like an excellent and worthwhile starting point to retire "the giving of power to authoritarian ideas."
Science is, ideally, a self-correcting enterprise. Built into the very framework of the evidence-based model of scientific inquiry, whether it be experimental or observational evidence, is the idea that all scientific ideas are tentative, to the degree that a really good idea can be amended (or even completely overthrown) by new evidence that contradicts the scientific model.
This means that the history of science is littered with failed hypotheses ... some of them quite ingenious ones, which were held onto by scientists for quite some time.
Consider, for example, the notion that the universe on cosmological scales was eternal and unchanging, a concept which took pretty firm hold with the work of Aristotle (not that he originated the idea ... please don't send letters!). Though this concept had to be modified a bit when Copernicus pushed the heliocentric model, Galileo Galilei discovered moons around other planets, and Sir Isaac Newton realized that heavenly bodies were moved by the same law of gravity that governed matter on Earth, the concept of a fundamentally eternal cosmos still held such significant sway that Albert Einstein felt the need to tailor his equations to create a cosmological constant explicitly for the purposes of maintaining a static universe.
Today, it is hard to think of a more antiquated scientific picture than the idea that our universe has existed in its current state for all of eternity.
It is unrealistic to believe that everything science believes today will continue to be believed into the future ... and I frankly know of no scientist (except perhaps Sheldon Cooper) who believes such a thing. New evidence will cause scientists to revise the thinking and models, and the understanding of reality will shift accordingly. This is as it should be.
But which current assumptions or theories are, here and now, most ready to be retired?
That's the question posed by this year's "annual question" over at Edge.org. You can find the responses from the 176 respondents - amazing intellects from all over science and academia - over at the website, and they are all extremely fascinating. Here are a few particularly relevant to physics:
- Sean Carroll discusses how the notion of falsifiability as a criteria for scientific status is an idea that needs to be dismissed, along with a great historical analysis of the concept itself, the context in which philosopher of science Karl Popper introduced it, and why it is no longer helpful.
- Andre Linde presents the idea that our universe is neither unique nor uniform, two ideas that are still assumed in much of our scientific thinking.
- Max Tegmark argues against the concept of infinity ... despite the fact that he was "seduced by infinity at an early age."
- Freeman Dyson suggests retirement of the concept of the collapse of the quantum wavefunction, because this concept is usually invoked in a way that gives the impression that the quantum wavefunction is itself a physical object.
- Lee Smolin offers that physicists need to move beyond the idea that the moment of the big bang was the first moment of time, trying to develop cosmological theories that incorporate a pre-big bang period in hopes of making progress in areas where we are currently stifled.
- Lawrence Krauss wants physicists to abandon the idea that the laws of physics are predetermined, and recognize that there exists not a single "one true theory" that nature is compelled to follow, but rather a range of possible physical laws ... some of which actually apply to our universe and to the region of our universe in which we exist (and can observe).
Again, I do really recommend that you read through these responses yourself. Though I'm inclined to be most interested in the ones related to physics, honestly some which fascinate me the most are the ones that offer to transform our assumptions not about physical reality but instead about human nature. As much as physicists sometimes can make jokes about the "squishy" sciences, on this list I've got to admit that the biologists and neuroscientists have some truly fantastic assumptions about being human that I'd like to see be abandoned ...
In the weeks to come, though, I will be returning to this list again and again, discussing some of the physics-related suggestions, the merits to them, and discussing where some of these assumptions came from and why we should keep them (if I can come up with such an argument).
Note: In the interest of fairness, I should point out that the psychologist Alex Holcombe's response for a scientific idea to be retired is, in fact, the very concept that science is self-correcting. While I agree with his many challenges to the self-correcting systems in science, I don't agree it's ready to be retired (or perhaps I just hope it's not).
Photosynthesis is the process by which light is transformed into energy within plant cells. We learn about it in school and, if you're like me, that's about the last time you thought about it in any great detail.
If prompted - like now - you may remember that this process takes place in organelles within the cells called chloroplasts, and that it involves a chemical called chlorophyll. And at this point, you are (if you're like me) at the limit of your photosynthetic knowledge, and you assume that the biologists, botanists, and biochemists have figured out the specifics of this process.
It turns out that things are still a little mysterious in this area, but maybe biophysics can shed some light on photosynthesis. (Apologies for the unintentional, but very serendipitous, pun.)
In a way, the involvement of physicists in understanding this process shouldn't be surprising. The transfer of energy is directly at the center of the answer to the question "What is physics?" and this is one of the most fundamental energy transfers that take place within the Earth, and certainly one of the first energy transfers that had to take place for the development and evolution of life, since the energy that we use to exist ultimately comes from the heat energy that the Earth receives from the sun.
This first got reported back in May of 2009, when researchers published findings that showed biological systems related to photosynthesis could maintain quantum entanglement even at room temperatures. This was a somewhat startling observation, because quantum systems are notoriously "touchy" and tend to require a great deal of isolation to retain their quantum properties and avoid the decoherence, resulting in a collapse of the quantum wavefunction. Typically, this sort of isolation also requires supercooling the system to tremendously low temperatures, so the idea that a biological system at room temperatures could maintain the entanglement has a lot of significant implications. However, just the demonstration that the biological system can exhibit quantum entanglement doesn't actually demonstrate that quantum effects are actually at play in practice, so it was at best suggestive of quantum effects, but ultimately circumstantial and inconclusive, requiring further experiments and analysis.
Fast forward to a new study published just last week, in which physicist at University College London (UCL) have identified processes within photosynthesis energy transfer that, they claim, can only be explained using quantum mechanics. Classical methods just don't quite work to explain the vibrational modes that take place during the energy transfer. In the words of study co-author Alexandra Olaya-Castro:
"Energy transfer in light-harvesting macromolecules is assisted by specific vibrational motions of the chromophores. We found that the properties of some of the chromophore vibrations that assist energy transfer during photosynthesis can never be described with classical laws, and moreover, this non-classical behaviour enhances the efficiency of the energy transfer."
The key quantum behavior comes in analyzing the probability of the system existing in different states. In classical probability, the probability of finding a chromophore in a certain state is always positive (or 0, of course), but cannot be negative. Their analysis, however, demonstrated that the probability distribution contained some values that were negative ... and this sort of behavior can only be explained and understood within quantum mechanical systems. The lead author Edward O'Reilly explains:
"The negative values in these probability distributions are a manifestation of a truly quantum feature, that is, the coherent exchange of a single quantum of energy. When this happens electronic and vibrational degrees of freedom are jointly and transiently in a superposition of quantum states, a feature that can never be predicted with classical physics."
In addition to the pure science geek joy of finding new examples of quantum behavior (which is enough for folks like me), this sort of research is far from abstract and could have direct technological applications. A more complete scientific understanding of the physics inherent in photosynthesis has potentially revolutionary implications in developing advanced solar cell technology, which could transform solar energy into other forms of energy at a much higher degree of efficiency than existing technologies, and shift us away from consumable resources toward viable renewable alternatives.
- ArXiv - "Quantum entanglement in photosynthetic light harvesting complexes," May 23, 2009
- Technology Review - "First Evidence of Entanglement in Photosynthesis," May 28, 2009
- The Foresight Institute - "Quantum entanglement in photosynthesis?", May 28, 2009
- Scientific American - "Quantum Entanglement, Photosynthesis, and Better Solar Cells," Sept. 1, 2009
- i09 - "Are Plants Really Using Quantum Entanglement in Photosynthesis?", Jan. 20, 2010
- UCL press release - "Quantum mechanics explains efficiency of photosynthesis," Jan. 9, 2014
- Nature Communications - "Non-classicality of the molecular vibrations assisting exciton energy transfer at room temperature," Jan. 9, 2014 (Follow link, then click to download PDF or other version.)
- i09 - "New evidence that plants get their energy using quantum entanglement," Jan. 10, 2014
Image source: Getty Images/Bob Stefko
Resolutions are kind of like the uncertainty principle in quantum mechanics: You can either focus on where you are or where you're going, but the more time you spend on one, the more you tend to lose track of the other.
Okay, it's kind of a weak analogy, but my point is: Thanks to all my readers for the great year and I hope you have a wonderful New Year celebration.
One of my resolutions is to start 2014 off with a bunch of updated information on quantum physics, so keep your eyes open. Here are a handful of recent articles that can help build your understanding of physics has to say about the world at the quantum level:
- What is the Copenhagen Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics?
- Decoherence and the Measurement Problem
- The Born Rule
- Quantum Wavefunction
- Heisenberg Cut
Yesterday, I discussed the upcoming theoretical physics book Our Mathematical Universe by Dr. Max Tegmark. While sorting out my office today, I was reminded of another book that is coming out in a few days which is also worth mentioning: The Physics of War: From Arrows to Atoms, by Barry Parker.
If Tegmark is addressing the deep underlying mathematical structure of the universe in all of its glorious majesty, then Parker's book can be seen as taking a very different tactic and focusing on the detailed and pragmatic application of mathematics to advance one of the least pleasant aspects of human endeavor: the art of killing other humans on massive scales.
The book explores the scientific and technological advancements in warfare within the context of analyzing real historical battles and military achievements. The book is not deeply mathematical, but there are relatively technical discussions of the topics, and there are a number of graphs and diagrams that the un-mathematical might find a bit intimidating. For someone with a bit of an engineering or design background, or even a hobbyist who likes building things, the level of science is fairly easily accessible. It doesn't require extensive study to interpret the parabolic path of an arrow undergoing projectile motion, for example. I haven't completed the book yet, but from what I can tell even the more technical discussions shy away from explicit equations or numerical analysis, focusing instead on giving just enough technical details to make it clear how impressive the various warmachine advancements were. As someone who has played a number of miniature wargames over the years, it's quite intriguing to learn the actual science behind battle devices like the ballista, the trebuchet, and even the onager ... a type of catapult that I personally had never even heard of!
The one real drawback that I see is that only a handful of pages in the last chapter are devoted to modern and futuristic forms of warfare, from drones to cyber-warfare, so people who are interested in a more modern understanding of warfare would probably need to supplement this book with another resource, but that's honestly understandable because computer viruses are a bit lest grounded in traditional physics considerations than missiles and machine guns.
The Physics of War: From Arrows to Atoms releases at bookstores nationwide on Jan. 7. If you have an interest in military history and science, then go ahead and pre-order your copy now!
I'm a huge fan of books that attempt to present complex scientific ideas to lay audiences. They got me started on the track to valuing science, and I still enjoy reading them.
A new one is coming out in a little over a week from MIT theoretical physicist Max Tegmark, called Our Mathematical Universe: My Quest for the Ultimate Nature of Reality. Dr. Tegmark is promoting the book with a whirlwind tour, ranging from San Francisco and Santa Cruz to Cambridge and London (but sadly skipping entirely over the Midwest ... looks like that classic The New Yorker cartoon was right). The central theme of the book, as the title suggests, is Tegmark's exploration of how our universe is guided by deeply-imbedded mathematical principles.
"Our Mathematical Universe boldly confronts one of the deepest questions at the fertile interface of physics and philosophy: why is mathematics so spectacularly successful at describing the cosmos? Through lively writing and wonderfully accessible explanations, Max Tegmark--one of the world's leading theoretical physicists--guides the reader to a possible answer, and reveals how, if it's right, our understanding of reality itself would be radically altered."
Tegmark is known as an innovative thinker. Among other things, he's developed an interesting classification of types of parallel universes that I've found extremely useful in explaining the concepts to others, and I'm sure that advanced ideas from cosmology and theoretical physics will take center stage in this book. I'm eagerly anticipating the new book and, if it looks like your sort of thing, you can pre-order it now!
Is it possible to move faster than the speed of light?
Surprisingly, the answer is yes. Superluminal speeds do, in fact, exist ... and they don't even violate the theory of relativity.
You can't move faster than the speed of light, unfortunately. And we can't build a spaceship that can move faster than the speed of light, unfortunately.
But if you have particles moving at nearly the speed of light in one medium, and those particles move into a new medium, then it's possible that they will be moving faster than the speed of light in that new medium. And if this happens, then it's possible for the charged particle to energize the atoms of the surrounding medium and, as those atoms collapse back into their ground states, they release a form of energy known as Cherenkov radiation. This is kind of similar to a plane breaking the sound barrier creating a blast of sound and energy in the form of a sonic boom. Cherenkov radiation is used to detect radiation, such as cosmic rays. The discovery of Cherenkov radiation and the development of the theoretical framework for understanding it was recognized with the 1958 Nobel Prize in Physics.
So if you thought that it was absolutely impossible for something to move faster than the speed of light ... well, now you know better.
Still, it would be nice to have our intergalactic spaceships.