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Andrew Zimmerman Jones

Andrew's Physics Blog

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The Importance of Failure in Science

Friday May 30, 2014

In my recent interview with Professor Lawrence Krauss, I was particularly impressed by our discussion of scientific education, and the importance of not knowing something to the process of science:

"... we teach kids as if the answers are important. It's the questions that are important. And I think that not knowing is a wonderful thing and more parents and more teachers should be willing to say that. "I don't know the answer. Let's figure out how we might learn what the answer is." Because that's what we're trying to teach in schools. It's a process. Science is a process of trying to take this complicated world and figure things out and that means not knowing things and try to figure out how to get the answer. And not knowing is what I do for a living."

This idea has an ancient pedigree. Socrates is attributed with recognizing that the core of wisdom is recognizing that you know nothing. While saying that you know nothing is perhaps a bit extreme, I think it's a better starting point than assuming that you understand pretty much everything.

The need to know everything, to be right, to not fail has extremely damaging ramifications to the pursuit of knowledge. Any knowledge, but particularly by science. Science progresses by trying ideas out, disproving earlier conceptions, and gradually getting closer and closer to the truth at the heart of the phenomenon being studied.

Along these same lines is one of my favorite moments from the NBC television drama The West Wing. It is from an episode called "Galileo," which focused on a spacecraft that was going to land on Mars. As it approached Mars, however, NASA lost the signal from it. The President was supposed to be on a national broadcast to schoolchildren across the country for the event, but with having lost the signal, he wanted to cancel it. His press secretary gave the following response:

"We have, at our disposal, a captive audience of schoolchildren. Some of them don't go to the black board and raise their hand 'cause they think they're gonna be wrong. I think you should say to these kids you think you get it wrong sometimes, you should come down here and see how the big boys do it. I think you should tell them you haven't given up hope, and that it may turn up, but in the meantime, you want NASA to put its best people in the room, and you want them to start building Galileo VI. Some of them will laugh, and most of them won't care, but for some, they might honestly see that it's about going to the blackboard and raising your hand."

Yes, that is it exactly. In science, in school, and in life ... it's about going to the blackboard and raising your hand.

Superheroes and Science

Friday May 30, 2014

Physics of Superheroes coverSome of my earliest scientific knowledge was gleaned from the pages of comic books, as I learned that The Flash was unable to move faster than the speed of light and that, when he did move this fast, time actually moved faster for him than it did for the surrounding world ... principles that are scientifically grounded in Einstein's theory of relativity!

And I'm not the only one. Firmly rooted in the golden age of science fiction, developed alongside the transformation in technology that came along with the nuclear age in the middle of the twentieth century, comic book origin stories incorporate all manner of scientific causes ... usually some form of radiation bombardment. The same forces that created the terror of Godzilla also created Spiderman, The Hulk, and the Fantastic Four. The science related to superheroics in traditional comic books is described in great detail by physicist James Kakalios in his entertaining book The Physics of Superheroes.

In this March article from Symmetry magazine, the connection between particle physics and superheroes is specifically called out ... in a really engaging way. They hired experienced an experienced comic book writer and artist to create new characters, the "Quantum Family," to highlight some of the key connections to fundamental scientific concepts, such as dark matter, neutrinos, and positrons. It's really a fun article, so if you haven't read it yet, you should check it out.

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Quantum Consciousness and the Danger of Aging Physicists

Friday May 30, 2014

Physics in MindI have long been intrigued by the notion of quantum consciousness, which is to say that the mysterious nature of consciousness could somehow be linked to quantum phenomena taking place within the human brain. I have been intrigued, but highly skeptical. The reason for this skepticism is that there's really no evidence to suggest that this is the case, and the most sophisticated arguments along these lines have been heavily theoretical and strained. In fact, there is no proof that any theory of quantum mind has any real basis in reality, despite numerous books about quantum consciousness.

Which leads me to a recent article on the Slate website, which is extremely critical of the quantum consciousness approach. It makes the point, among other things, that part of the problem is when aging and successful physicists begin trying to apply their insights into entirely different fields of study, in which they are not experts. I think it may date back to the Renaissance, when scientists tended to transform a variety of fields, many of them completely unrelated to each other. That time has certainly passed, and current efforts of a scientist to transform another field has generally proven to be quite ineffective.

I would love to believe that quantum physics is deeply rooted to the basis of human consciousness ... but my desire to believe it has no bearing on the actual evidence that exists or does not exist. And not even the "spooky" features of quantum physics can change that.

Introducing the Tetraquark

Sunday May 18, 2014

elementary particlesThough the Higgs boson has garnered the biggest headlines, more groundbreaking particle physics results are coming out of the Large Hadron Collider. Among the most impressive of these findings is compelling experimental evidence for the existence of a whole new class of matter particle, called a tetraquark. As the name suggests, this composite particle is created by four quarks (actually, two quarks and two anti-quarks). The evidence is strong, but further research is needed to understand how it works, since it seems to decay much more quickly than would be expected by other evidence and theoretical predictions.

Inflation Theory Evidence Update

Saturday May 10, 2014

BICEP2 History of the UniverseThe last couple of months have been amazing as the scientific community has looked at the results from the BICEP2 telescope and what its implications are for our understanding of cosmology - the development of our universe on the broadest and smallest scales. In a recent article at the PBS Nova Physics "The Nature of Reality" blog, I discuss how this evidence might have implications for a theory of quantum gravity.

I've read a lot on this subject, and so decided to pull together a lot of the links and quotes that I've found into one location. These provide some great insights into the sort of things the physicists are saying about it.

In essence, if additional research confirms these results, it really has the potential to be the most important scientific discovery since the 1998 discovery of dark energy. It's great to see this unfolding in real time across the scientific community, as they try to understand what, if any, implications it may have for our broader understanding of science ... and also thrilling to take part in that conversation, even in some small way.

Image: The bottom part of this illustration shows the scale of the universe versus time. Specific events are shown such as the formation of neutral Hydrogen at 380 000 years after the big bang. Prior to this time, the constant interaction between matter (electrons) and light (photons) made the universe opaque. After this time, the photons we now call the CMB started streaming freely. The fluctuations (differences from place to place) in the matter distribution left their imprint on the CMB photons. The density waves appear as temperature and "E-mode" polarization. The gravitational waves leave a characteristic signature in the CMB polarization: the "B-modes". Both density and gravitational waves come from quantum fluctuations which have been magnified by inflation to be present at the time when the CMB photons were emitted.

Source: BICEP2

Sean Carroll on Naturalism

Wednesday April 30, 2014

Cosmology Sean CarrollSean Carroll (the cosmologist, not the evolutionary biologist) is quickly becoming a prominent voice on naturalism - that is, broadly speaking, the worldview that we can explain events in the world through natural processes. The stance of naturalism is, at the very least, a methodological stance at the heart of scientific inquiry, and it's usually taken as being not only part of the scientific method but also metaphysical. Physicists by and large believe that these natural processes are completely sufficient explanations for the phenomena that they explain.

In a recent debate, Caroll went head-to-head with theologian William Lane Craig. This i09 article does a good job of breaking down Caroll's arguments in favor of naturalism, and Carroll himself has some reflections here. Those really interested, of course, can view the debate in its entirety on YouTube, although the video comes in at nearly 3 hours, so bring some popcorn.

This isn't Carroll's first rodeo, though. He participated in a two-on-two debate with William Shermer against Dinesh D'Souza and physicist Ian Hutchinson, on the subject of "Has Science Refuted Religion?", which featured this brilliant monologue on the virtues of naturalism. Unfortunately, the wording of the debate topic made it almost destined that the pro-science side would fail. There's also this video of Carroll debating philosopher and Christian Hans Halvorson, with a lot more middle ground than many of these discussions tend to have.

That, I think, is where Carroll really shines. As opposed to some more ardent atheists, he doesn't strike me as particularly concerned in winning the metaphysical argument about naturalism. He is content to make the argument that the metaphysical argument about naturalism is irrelevant, because moving beyond naturalism - moving beyond science - offers nothing substantive to the predictive power of our worldviews. And, ultimately, a worldview is useful only to the degree that we use it to understand the world and make decisions about how to engage with the world.

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Kavli Foundation on Inflation Fossils

Wednesday April 30, 2014

Dark-Sector-Lab__BICEP2.jpgThe recent evidence for cosmic inflation theory by the discovery of polarization from gravitational waves in the early universe, as announced last month by the BICEP2 research team, has generated a lot of interest in the science community. Here is a video of a great discussion with some of the researchers by the Kavli Foundation, discussing the implications of the new evidence.

Image: The Dark Sector Lab (DSL), located 3/4 of a mile from the Geographic South Pole, houses the BICEP2 telescope (left) and the South Pole Telescope (right).

Image Source: Steffen Richter, Harvard University

Lawrence Krauss on the Science of Origins

Tuesday April 29, 2014

Andrew Jones and Lawrence Krauss, Apr. 7 2014I recently had the opportunity to sit down with theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss and discuss what science can tell us about the origins of the universe. Krauss is the Director of the Origins Project at Arizona State University, and is also well known as the author of a number of excellent popular books on advanced physics topics, including The Physics of Star Trek, Hiding in the Mirror, and A Universe from Nothing. We met in Columbus, Ohio, where Krauss was attending an event at Ohio State University to help promote his new documentary film with fellow scientist and atheist Richard Dawkins, The Unbelievers. Our discussion was brief but fruitful, with Krauss illuminating a variety of topics.

On using origins questions to motivate scientific interest

As I was thinking of ways to get people interested in the subject, I realized that cosmology, as exciting as it is, alone is just part of the question and that one could bring together lots of different fields and when I started to think about it, I realized that origins questions are really at the heart of the forefront of science. And, as you may or may not know, I have a broad interest in science, well beyond physics, and so I just thought: Well, since origins questions are at the forefront of science, and they are also at the forefront of the public's interest, it would be a wonderful handle to allow us to look at really interesting questions anywhere, they all fit in an origins framework. [...]

We tend to treat physics for kids as if it was done 200 years ago by dead, white men, but that's just not it, though. The questions are vibrant and they're of interest and they're accessible to people, which is one of the reasons that I write and speak about them.

On the importance of honesty and full disclosure in the process of science

We teach kids as if the answers are important. It's the questions that are important. And I think that not knowing is a wonderful thing and more parents and more teachers should be willing to say that. "I don't know the answer. Let's figure out how we might learn what the answer is." Because that's what we're trying to teach in schools. It's a process. Science is a process of trying to take this complicated world and figure things out and that means not knowing things and try to figure out how to get the answer. And not knowing is what I do for a living. [...]

I think honesty is a key part of science. Honesty and full disclosure. I like to try and think I do that, take that beyond science. But being wrong is a central part of science and being willing to say you're wrong. [...] I think the point is that's how we make progress. I have had, I think, many beautiful ideas and unfortunately nature wasn't smart enough to adopt them.

On his skepticism about string theory

My point [in Hiding in the Mirror] was that string theory is based on a lot of fascinating ideas. However, it has been the least successful great idea in science in the sense that it hasn't yet made touch with observation in any way. We still don't know if the ideas of string theory are right. They're really well motivated; it's not as if they aren't well motivated. But it was strongly hyped. And I guess I was against the hype, not the theory.

To find out more what Krauss had to say on these and other topics, read the text of the full interview.

Tyson on Minorities in Science

Friday April 18, 2014

Neil deGrasse TysonAt a panel on atheism and science, there was a question about why proportionally so few women pursue careers in the hard sciences. The question relates to comments from Larry Summers about whether there is perhaps some neurophysical explanation for the difference between the genders in this area.

Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson stepped up with a fantastic response, based upon his own experience having to deal with all of the challenges of being a minority in a white-dominated field of study. Though Tyson has never been a woman, he's always been black, and the challenges are somewhat similar in the sorts of hurdles they have to jump. Here's the link to the segment on YouTube (though if you want to back up and watch the whole video, that's fine too).

Of particular interest, though, is Tyson's observation that he looks behind him and laments the overall lack of progress in getting minorities engaged in the hard sciences. Where are the people coming up in his wake, benefiting from the challenges he's had to face and overcome? To be sure, Tyson is not the only black scientist ... not even the only prominent black scientist. Just within theoretical physics, James Sylvester Gates and Clifford Johnson come to mind as not only great scientists, but also great science communicators. (Gates is actually about 8 years older than Tyson and Johnson is English.)

Many of the challenges that these men have had to face are, sadly, still in place even today. Dr. Tyson recounts an experience, for example, where he was targeted for investigation when store alarms went off. One has to wonder if he was perhaps targeted because of his spiffy astronomy-themed vest or because they were concerned that he had stolen Magnum P.I.'s mustache.

So, Tyson concludes, before we begin looking for biological explanations for different demographic representations in the sciences, we need to be sure that the social explanations are completely ruled out.

This panel is from several years ago, but it just got bumped to my attention through a viral treatment through the Upworthy website.

Image: Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist, at a 2005 meeting of the NASA Advisory Council in Washington, DC. Public Domain from NASA

White House Shows How Little Money Goes to Scientific Research

Wednesday April 16, 2014

Well before tax day comes around, the federal government already has a pretty good idea how they're going to spend the money. In an effort to make at least token steps toward transparency, the White House website has released a website called Your 2013 Federal Taxpayer Receipt. This website allows you to enter your Social Security, Medicare, and Income Tax amounts and find out how much of your federal tax bill went to various aspects of the federal budget.

Even without entering values, though, the distribution is telling. The category Space, Science, and Technology Programs comes in at a whopping 1.13% of the federal budget, which is broken down between:

  • NASA:  0.64%
  • National Science Foundation and additional science research and laboratories: 0.49%

There are some other line items, buried within other categories, which might arguably contain various science-related expenses:

  • National Defense - Research, development, weapons, and construction: 7.60%
  • Health Care - Health research and food safety: 1.43%
  • Natural Resources, Energy, and Environment 1.92%

And, of course, some percentage of the education-related expenses no doubt go to science education. Excluding the defense-related research, this means that the total of all of the scientific research is - at the absolute maximum - 4.48% of the federal budget. And, in truth, most of this 4.48% goes to aspects of these categories that have nothing to do with actual research.

These funding concerns are at the heart of many of the essays in Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier by Neil deGrasse Tyson. For example, even the 0.64% of the federal budget attributed to NASA is wrong to think of as scientific research-oriented. According to Tyson:

When NASA's manned missions are not advancing a space frontier, NASA's science activities tend to dominate the nation's space headlines, which currently emanate from four divisions: Earth Science, Heliophysics, Planetary Science, and Astrophysics. The largest portion of NASA's budget ever spent on these activities briefly hit 40 percent, in 2005. During the Apollo era, the annual percentage hovered in the mid-teens. Averaged over NASA's half century of existence, the annual percentage of spending on science sits in the low twenties. Put simply, science is not a funding priority either for NASA or for any of the members of Congress who vote to support NASA's budget.

If NASA's budget devotes only about 40% toward research, and if this is optimistically similar for other science-related sections in the budget, then it's safe to say that my earlier 4.48% prediction is going to come out to be even less than 40% of that ... or less than 1.78% of the federal budget devoted to non-defense scientific research!

If you're reading this blog, then this likely isn't that much of a surprise to you, but it never fails to amaze me how many people I run into who think that scientific research receives lavish bundles of money handed out by the federal government.

But the lesson from this budget is absolutely clear: aside from defense-related research, an incredibly small percentage of our federal budget is devoted toward investment in scientific research.

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