Sunday, May 31, 2009

Uncommon Descent Contest 4: Can we save physics by dumping the Copernican principle?

In "Does Dark Energy Really Exist? Or does Earth occupy a very unusual place in the universe?" physicist Timothy Clifton and astrophysicist Pedro G. Ferreira argue just that: If we give up the Copernican principle, we do not need dark energy to explain the composition of the universe. (Scientific American, March 23, 2009)

Copernican principle? Dark energy?

Copernican principle: That's the idea that Earth does not occupy any unusual position in the universe. Indeed, the point was driven home in a recent talk I attended at a science writers' convention. The Copernican principle is widely believed, to be sure, but that tells me nothing one way or the other about whether it is well supported by evidence. And I already know good reasons for doubting it. (Note: It has nothing whatever to do with Copernicus, who wouldn't likely have agreed with it.)

Dark energy? "Dark" means we are in the dark about it. According to the current model, we don't know what 70 percent, approximately, of the cosmos comprises. Whatever that 70% is, it does not respond to light. It also does not answer e-mail, phone mail, or letter mail. Bummer.
Many physicists believe that maybe 25% of this unknown substance is dark matter. The rest is dark energy.

Actually, we don't even know what dark matter is, according to the cautious SNO Plus physicists who are building a huge underground facility in the Creighton Mine in Sudbury, Canada, to trap a particle a year of the stuff. So they hardly wish to give tell-all interviews on dark energy.
Anyway, here are some excerpts from Clifton and Ferreira on whether we need assume that dark energy even exists:

... the existence of dark energy is still so puzzling that some cosmologists are revisiting the fundamental postulates that led them to deduce its existence in the first place. One of these is the product of that earlier revolution: the Copernican principle, that Earth is not in a central or otherwise special position in the universe. If we discard this basic principle, a surprisingly different picture of what could account for the observations emerges.

Most of us are very familiar with the idea that our planet is nothing more than a tiny speck orbiting a typical star, somewhere near the edge of an otherwise unnoteworthy galaxy. In the midst of a universe populated by billions of galaxies that stretch out to our cosmic horizon, we are led to believe that there is nothing special or unique about our location. But what is the evidence for this cosmic humility? And how would we be able to tell if we were in a special place? Astronomers typically gloss over these questions, assuming our own typicality sufficiently obvious to warrant no further discussion. To entertain the notion that we may, in fact, have a special location in the universe is, for many, unthinkable. Nevertheless, that is exactly what some small groups of physicists around the world have recently been considering.

[ ... ]

In the conventional picture, we talk about the expansion of the universe on the whole. It is very much like when we talk about a balloon blowing up: we discuss how big the entire balloon gets, not how much each individual patch of the balloon inflates. But we all have had experience with those annoying party balloons that inflate unevenly. One ring stretches quickly, and the end takes a while to catch up. In an alternative view of the universe, one that jettisons the cosmological principle [a generalization of t he Copernican principle], space, too, expands unevenly. A more complex picture of the cosmos emerges.

[ ... ]

The possibility that we live in the middle of a giant cosmic void is an extreme rejection of the cosmological principle, but there are gentler possibilities. The universe could obey the cosmological principle on large scales, but the smaller voids and filaments that galaxy surveys have discovered might collectively mimic the effects of dark energy. Tirthabir Biswas and Alessio Notari, both at McGill University, as well as Valerio Marra and his collaborators, then at the University of Padua in Italy and the University of Chicago, have studied this idea. In their models, the universe looks like Swiss cheese uniform on the whole but riddled with holes. Consequently, the expansion rate varies slightly from place to place. Rays of light emitted by distant supernovae travel through a multitude of these small voids before reaching us, and the variations in the expansion rate tweak their brightness and redshift. So far, however, the idea does not look very promising. One of us (Clifton), together with Joseph Zuntz of Oxford, recently showed that reproducing the effects of dark energy would take lots of voids of very low density, distributed in a special way.

Does Guillermo Gonzalez have clones? Is this legal?

Well, never mind that for now. For a free copy of the Privileged Planet DVD, here is the question:

To what extent is the Copernican or cosmological principle held for emotional reasons, and not because the evidence supports it? In 400 words, would we be better off or worse off without it?

(Note: I recommend that you read the whole SciAm article before commenting.)
Here are the contest rules.

You must go to Uncommon Descent to comment. Your name will not be put on a mailing list, or sold or given away for any purpose. There is no mailing list. However, if you win and do not send me a mailing address of your choice at, I cannot send you your prize.

I will shortly be judging Contest 3.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Particle physics: Do electrons have free will?

At Slashdot ("News for nerds. Stuff that matters"), "snahgle" advises,
Mathematicians John Conway (inventor of the Game of Life) and Simon Kochen of Princeton University have proven that if human experimenters demonstrate 'free will' in choosing what measurements to take on a particle, then the axioms of quantum mechanics require that the free will property be available to the particles measured, or to the universe as a whole. Conway is giving a series of lectures on the 'Free Will Theorem' and its ramifications over the next month at Princeton. A followup article strengthening the theory (PDF) was published last month in Notices of the AMS."
Hmmmm. There seems to be a confusion here between "freedom" and "free will."

Freedom just means that no law of nature forces the electron into one path rather than another. Free will requires, at minimum, consciousness and rationality - the ability to observe one's state and form a conscious intention about it.

We better keep this straight before someone forms a "particle rights" movement , ripping off the animal rights playbook. (Though I think Weed Rights International will probably precede Particle Rights Universal.)

Origin of life: "Primordial soup" belief undermines traditional spirituality?

Diana Yates, Life Sciences Editor, alerts us to a study at her university, "God or science? A belief in one weakens positive feelings for the other" (12/15/08):
The researchers conducted two experiments designed to manipulate how well science or God can be used as explanations. In the first, 129 volunteers read short summaries of the Big Bang theory and the “Primordial Soup Hypothesis,” a scientific theory of the origin of life. Half then read a statement that said that the theories were strong and supported by the data. The other half read that the theories “raised more questions than they answered.”

In the second experiment, which involved 27 undergraduate students, half of the study subjects had to “list six things that you think God can explain.” The others were asked to “list six things that you think can explain or influence God.”

All the subjects were then required to quickly categorize various words as positive or negative on a computer.

“What they didn’t realize was that they were being subliminally primed immediately before each word,” Preston said. “So right before the word ‘awful’ came up on the screen, for example, there was a 15-millisecond flash of either ‘God’ or ‘science’ or a control word.”

A 15-millisecond visual cue is too brief to register in the conscious mind, but the brief word flash did have an effect. Those who had read statements emphasizing the explanatory power of science prior to the test were able to categorize positive words appearing just after the word, “science,” more quickly than those who had read statements critical of the scientific theories.

Those who were asked to use God as an ultimate explanation for various phenomena displayed a more positive association with God and a much more negative association with science than those directed to list other things that can explain God, the researchers found. Similarly, those who read the statement suggesting that the scientific theories were weak were extremely slow to identify negative words that appeared after they were primed with the word “God,” Preston said.

“It was like they didn’t want to say no to God,” she said.
Sounds like voodoo to me. And, while the Big Bang is pretty well attested, the "primordial soup" is not a hypothesis in science; it is a materialist creation story, on the level of the cosmic egg. ("Once upon a time, it all just happened, see .. ")

Cosmology: I seem to have yanked particle physicist Lawrence Krauss's chain

In a recent post, "Science at the end of the world: Lawrence Krauss addresses the 2009 Sudbury, Ontario, meeting of the Canadian Science Writers' Association", I doubted his "particle physicist" prescriptions for science journalism.

Essentially, he thought a lot of problems would be cleared up if we started with the assumption that there is only one side to many science stories. Well yes, it would simplify matters, but ...

He also thought it his duty to tell us his opinions on many issues in religion and politics.

I pointed out here that it is the duty of a journalist to seek a variety of perspectives on an issue. I followed that up by talking about the scientists who spoke at the conference who truly impressed me: He who knows something gains respect. He who knows everything ...

Anyway, Dr. Krauss felt it worth his while to respond here at Salvo (where I had put up a stub leading to the post). He suggested that I should have been at a meeting of religious writers.

In fact, my complaint was precisely that there was too much about religion and politics in his address - to say nothing of altogether too much certainty about a universe where we only know about 5% of the total mass.

Here is what I said in reply:
As I pointed out in a recent post, it was Krauss who brought up a lot of dreck about religion in his talk Sunday night - after I had listened to real science all morning at Dynamic Earth!

When we went down to the mine, to SNOLAB and SNOLAB Plus the following Tuesday, no one talked about religion at all.

In fact, those scientists, unlike Krauss were humble in the face of the facts, and never claimed that they knew all that he claims to knows about the cosmos, as well as government, school systems, et cetera.

They certainly restored my faith in science.

Krauss isn't fooling anyone. That's why he grouses that Canada is beginning to fear science (= fear listening to people like him instead of people like the SNO Plus physicists).
He then went on to reply again, saying the same sorts of things:
I spent a fair amount of time trying to specifically discuss inherent tensions in science reporting, and then explain what he have been learning about the universe.. and even pointed out the key things we don't understand.. I had not met ms o'leary before but she does a disservice to journalism by her reporting.

L. Krauss
He did spend a fair amount of time on science reporting (to no good effect, in my view) and on key things we don't understand - but with a level of certainty and an admixture of religion and politics that seemed quite out of place to me. Especially because - as noted above - the whole thing had been done much better, earlier in the day, by a local physicist.

Well, I was not going to bother with this any more because if my In Tray were a work of nature, it would be formally classified as a natural disaster. However, Dr. Krauss also went to Uncommon Descent, where I am a community blogger, and posted similar comments. He complains of "inaccuracies and distortions".

Again, I replied:
Dr. Krauss does not - in my view - clearly understand that journalism is the first draft of history.

No one who practises the craft should start out knowing exactly who is right and who is wrong. It is never as simple as that, and approaching it that way is a good way to be wrong.

And the more things one is absolutely certain of, the more likely one is to be wrong.
My sense is, Dr. Krauss probably isn't used to people who analyze what he is saying seriously, especially when he is prescribing for fields other than his own.

In reality, a great many of the people at that conference were science communication bureaucrats on government salary. They do not need to think about the problems of news reporting in the way that I do.

Anyway, I am now going back to the ol' In Tray, all the heavier for new stories from the Sudbury meet.

See also: Humanity killing the Universe? (More of Dr. Krauss's views)

Friday, May 29, 2009

Origin of life: Speculation rents the "science" costume - leaves without head

In Probability's nature and nature's probability: A call to scientific integrity, information scientist Donald E. Johnson tackles, among other things, the origin of life.

Johnson takes on the aimless speculation that characterizes so much consensus science today on such issues:
... one should not be able to get away with stating "it is possible that life arose from non-life by ..." without first demonstrating that it is indeed possible (defined in the nature of probability) using known science. One could, of course, state "it may be speculated that ...," but such a statement wouldn't have the believability that its author intends to convey by the pseudo-scientific pronouncement."(p. 5)
I myself am so fed up with pseudoscientific pronouncements on the origin of life that I decided to cover all such stories here at Colliding Universes, along with speculations about the end of the universe - rather than at Post-Darwinist, where many claims, whether well-supported or not, have at least some basis in fact.

This is a great book for scientists with a background in probability who want to understand why there is a controversy over design in the universe.

Coffee! Greatest sci-fi special effects

Greatest special effects here.

Also from the Science Channel, how to build your own time machine and skip awful, anti-productive meetings.

Wow. Three years of my life back. There was a time when I thought the sweetest word in the whole universe was "adjourned."

(Note: If you follow me at Twitter, you will get regular notice of new posts at Colliding Universes. I usually wait till I have five.)

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Paradigms in science and the case of Paul Dirac

British physicist David Tyler writes about Nobelist Dirac, pictured above: :
It is good advice to be wary of anyone purporting to represent the consensus in science. Those who speak the loudest about scientific consensus are often advancing other agendas. A good example can be derived from what people say about the 'scientific method'. Anyone practising science needs to know what it is, but in the real world, the progress of science often departs from the norm. Paul Dirac was a case in point. He was a theoretical physicist at Cambridge University who, in 1928, developed the maths that described the quantum behaviour of electrons. This led to the conclusion that it must be possible for an electron to have a positive charge. Later, Dirac described it as an "anti-electron" and when it was discovered in 1932 it was named the positron. The following year, Dirac received the Nobel Prize for his work. The first biography of this genius has been published recently and an informative review appears in the current Nature.

Several characteristics of Dirac's work do not fit well with the consensus way of doing science. First, Dirac was a pure theoretician. He was not an experimentalist (although, later in life, this changed). He did not show any interest in stimulating a quest to find the positron. "Although he commented that it could be made transiently in experiments, he was surprisingly circumspect, more concerned with the difficulties of detection than the inevitability of its existence. He made no suggestion as to how experimentalists might make it, or recognize it. He was away in the United States later that year when Robert Millikan gave a talk at the University of Cambridge, UK, showing Anderson's images of particle tracks from cosmic rays - including some that looked like those of electrons but which curved the wrong way in a magnetic field. No one associated these tracks with Dirac's holes."
For more, go here.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Coffee!: What if you drank a glass of heavy water?

While touring SNOLAB, the underground neutrino detector in the active Creighton Mine in Sudbury (Ontario, Canada) yesterday, I asked one of the senior scientists what would happen if a visitor drank a glass of the heavy water used in the apparatus for detecting the neutrinos that spill out of the sun.

Heavy water is D2O rather than H2O, with heavy hydrogen replacing the normal hydrogen that forms part of the compound we call water. Our metabolism functions via the normal "light" water.

He replied that that visitor would soon feel unwell.

The heavy water, he explained, would attempt to do the job that normal water does in our bodies, it but can't. Our bodies operate on normal water.

So, as he put it, the person's metabolism would be "deuterized."

A few litres more and there would be no need to worry about metabolism any more ...

He also mentioned that, no matter how elaborate the methods the researchers use to scrub the normal water that surrounds the globe of heavy water in the neutrino detector, they always find a few living cells in it anyway. But they never, ever find living cells in heavy water.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

He who knows something gains respect. He who knows everything ...

Well, the Canadian Science Writers’ Association conference at Science North in Sudbury wrapped up yesterday, and today I got a chance to tour SNOLAB, the underground neutrino detector in the active Creighton Mine, which is currently retooling for SNO Plus, the hunt for dark matter.

Just for now: The Solar Neutrino Observatory (SNO) Lab is 2 kilometres underground, and then about two kilometres walk through an active nickel mine, followed by a serious shower and change into clean room gear. SNO's main recent experiment is now finished, and the lab is being retooled. But 16 science writers were allowed to tour Sno Plus, Canada's entry in the race to find a dark matter particle. More on all this great stuff later; I won't spoil it for you now.

The scientists I met and listened to there had something in common with the fascinating scientists who spoke at the Dynamic Earth on May 24 in the morning, on life forms of the oceans' abyssal plain, understanding dark matter, and extraterrestrial mining.

All took a great deal of time to explain what they were doing, and any that I approached with further questions were happy to answer them. But they were very clear about the fact that they do not remotely know all the answers and that no one does. I still have no idea what their political or religious opinions are, and do not care, any more than I suppose they want to hear mine.

I came away with great respect for them because I feel I can trust their information. Like the best journalists, they know the limits of their craft. Wish I could say the same for all.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Science at the end of the world: Lawrence Krauss addresses the 2009 meeting of the Canadian Science Writers' Association

Particle physicist Lawrence M. Krauss* addressed the gathering at the Canadian Science Writers' Association conference at Science North in Sudbury, May 24, 2009.

I made some notes of his remarks in "Star Trek Physics" in a darkened cave, the Inco Cave at Science North, though I do not have a transcript.

His talk was billed Star Trek Physics, and the PowerPoint revealed physics bloopers spotted in Star Trek, the X-files, and other film resources.

It was certainly entertaining, but not riveting, at least for me. Anyone who gets their physics from sources clearly labelled science fiction or UFOlogy, well ...

But Dr. Krauss had advice for science communicators:

1. Don't assume your audience is interested. "Don't expect interest, create it."

2. Science is dull, hard, and unrelated to the real world. Communicators must work against that. ("Remember how boring science can seem.")

3. "Most people perceive themselves as fundamentally uninterested in science."

4. Confront misconceptions: it's the only way people remember.

Now, I have reservations about career academic scientists advising journalists how to communicate, or high school science teachers how to teach. They tend to emit platitudes that are too general to be put into practice, and therefore too general to fail.

Take the advice offered above, for example: Few journalists doubt that we must create interest. (If we doubted, our editors would swiftly correct us.) Our readers typically do hard and boring jobs all day, so the idea that jobs in science are hard and boring would not - in principle - surprise them. However, in my experience, most readers are interested in science when they see its relevance to their lives. Yes, confronting misconceptions can be useful, but much of the time, huge gaps in our knowledge are a bigger problem than misconceptions - and we cannot easily fill in those gaps, either.

Dr. Krauss went on to say that there is an innate tension between journalism and science. The problem is, "journalists think there are two sides to every story." According to him, this is not true: "Most times, one side is simply wrong."

Oh well, that's all right then. Having been informed that one side is simply wrong, the journalist can forget about getting a range of opinion and simply act as a shill for the approved view.

The beauty of that strategy is that if there are problems with the approved view, the journalist is guaranteed never to find out, so she will always be sure she and her sources are right.

Dr. Krauss later conceded that "The editors are the bad guys." Yes, indeed, in the sense that editors often come up with additional people for us writers to interview, people who offer additional perspectives. They, like us, see most stories as having many sides, not just one, so they are guilty of multiple sins, and we are complicit (when we are doing our job, that is).

He also told us that fear of science is growing in Canada. I have lived here all my life, and I cannot confirm that. This is the home of the Canadarm and the Blackberry, after all. In fact, one of the very interesting presentations that same day was on Canada's proposed contribution to plans to mine the moon for moon base supplies, but more on that later. Canadians are - in my view, understandably, in these times - skeptical of high-budget schemes and far-fetched ideas. They want to know what the payload is. But that is a different matter.

While insisting that science doesn't undermine religion in principle (who said it did?), Dr. Krauss made clear that "In many ways I hope it does" and his talk was full of asides making very clear his views on political, religious, and social issues - which entirely belied his claims. Also, like many visiting United States residents I have listened to, he assumed that everyone here cares what he thinks about US politics. Not only do I not care who he voted for in the last US election, I imagine he does not care who I voted for to be mayor of Toronto. I did not seek anyone out to tell them, and would be pleased if he would do the same.

Much of the latter part of Dr. Krauss's talk was dedicated to the proposition that he knows exactly how the universe began and how it will end, and that Earth is entirely insignificant.

(The fact that Earth is the only known home of life of any kind - and of intelligent life - must apparently not be significant, though the reason why not was never made clear.)

In Dr. Krauss's view, the only reasonable view of the universe is that it is flat, and there are only a few little details to be ironed out. It was there that I wondered whether my colleagues - mostly salaried science bureaucrats, I suspect, not freelancers - had caught on. Many scientists don't think that the universe is flat. Are they also people whose side of the story journalists should not cover?

I asked Dr. Krauss during the question period about string theory, which he opposes. Of course he spoke dismissively of it. I don't get string theory either, but I don't plan on deciding that there is only one side of the story there either.

Walking back to my hotel, I was sure that Dr. Krauss reminded me of something, and later realized what it was:
In science, small, persistent effects cannot be ignored. Sometimes they force a revision of major paradigms. For example, Lord Kelvin remarked in 1900 that there were just “two little dark clouds” on the horizon of Newtonian classical physics of the day, namely, Michelson and Morley’s measurements of the velocity of light and the phenomenon of blackbody radiation. Kelvin was certain that these troubling little clouds would be blown away shortly.149 Yet all of modern physics—relativity and quantum mechanics—derives from these two little dark clouds. (The Spiritual Brain, p. 173)
It's always those little things that trip us up.

Later, I was embarrassed to overhear an animated conversation by two colleagues, one of whom claimed to see "some value" in religion, as long as it just makes you feel good and tricks you into behaving better and makes no truth claims. The perfect upper, right? Whereas any speculation is okay if it is called "science" and advanced with a great deal of assurance, and warnings against thinking that there could be two sides to the story.

(Note: Go here for update.)

*Note: At his site, Dr. Krauss describes himself as follows:

an internationally known theoretical physicist
a bestselling author
a frequent editorialist
a sought-after lecturer
a radio commentator
moderately photogenic
a profiled persona
and much more...

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Neutrinos: Sudbury Neutrino Observatory does the sun's bookkeeping

Saturday, I am headed off to the Canadian Science Writers' Association conference at Science North in Sudbury, Ontario. I will get a chance to tour the SNOLAB:
SNOLAB is an underground science laboratory situated two km below the surface in the Vale Inco Creighton Mine located near Sudbury (Ontario, Canada) approximately 400 km northwest of Toronto.
The SNO (solar neutrino experiment) lab was constructed to address the Solar Neutrino Problem (SNP).

Solar Neutrino Problem?: In recent years, theoretical models of the sun have permitted detailed calculations of the number (or flux) of neutrinos - tiny, probably massless particles with no electrical charge - released from the sun.

Several neutrino experiments have detected solar neutrinos and found the flux was too low. That is, far too few neutrinos are detected than can be consistent with the known energy output of the sun.

Two research aims of the SNOLAB are:

The neutrinos are not much changed when they pour out of the sun, so they can help us learn more about the sun's interior.

Neutrinos are produced in massive numbers during supernovas, so they can help us learn more about the evolution of the universe. More on all this later.

Origin of life: The live cat vs. the dead cat

Friend Roddy Bullock writes to advise me that his new essay, titled "Life: (More Than) Some Assembly Required" is now posted at ARN's ID Report:

When it comes to creating "life" in any form, the hopeful reports keep coming, tickling the ears with the sizzle, but never showing the steak. Just last month, The Boston Globe ran the headline "Harvard Fuels Quest to Create Life From Scratch" describing the latest research of Harvard's Origins of Life Initiative. And again, if one reads beyond the attention-grabbing headline, one learns that what has actually been created is a machine that can manufacture proteins. This is, of course, quite a feat of intelligent design, but to say, as the article quotes, that "it's a step toward artificial life" because the machine can mimic a ribosome, which is the "key component of all living systems", goes too far. Hey, our dead cat is full of ribosomes. There's no need to design a machine to make proteins, and no reason to believe that if you make them you are any closer to creating real life, much less "artificial life".
About our "dead cat"? Roddy kindly writes,

Thanks to Denyse O'Leary, whose question some time ago has stuck with me: "What's the difference between a live cat and a dead cat?" I used this as the opening line in this essay that explores the "life from scratch" quest and makes a prediction for all those who believe that ID theorists make no predictions. My prediction: "Scientists will never create life from scratch, unless one or both of 'life' or 'scratch' is redefined to a meaningless ambiguity."
Well, if the researchers succeed through intelligent design, they have shown that intelligent design can reverse engineer life. That is all.

The question I raised that evening:

If we assume that current theory is correct, the life of the cat was transmitted through countless generations of previous life forms. When the cat dies, before the decay processes have begun, we have exactly the same animal - but it is no longer alive. What changed, exactly? I mean, we can say that the cat's heart stopped, obviously, so life could not continue. But what precisely cannot continue?

My question is, can life can be seen as "information in motion"? When the information flow stops, that life form is soon scavenged by others, to continue their own lives as information in motion. That view of life would better suit a design interpretation of nature than a random evolution one.
Random evolution is what happens when the cat is dead - in the strict sense that whichever scavengers are drawn to the carcass first consume it. But these other life forms continue as information in motion.

Randomness does not produce intricate information, despite dogmatic insistence by materialists of various stripes.

See also: Origin of life: Latest scenario gives RNA world a boost

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Cosmology: Wow. It takes guts to wage war with Stephen Hawking ... he appeared in Star Trek

But some dare.

See this review by Michelle Press in Scientific American (October 8, 2008): In The Black Hole War: My Battle with Stephen Hawking to Make the World Safe for Quantum Mechanics (Little, Brown, 2008), Leonard Susskind, a professor of theoretical physics at Stanford University, recounts the battle over the true nature of black holes that he and Dutch physicist Gerard ’t Hooft have waged with Stephen Hawking:
In 1976 Stephen Hawking imagined throwing a bit of information—a book, a computer, even an elementary particle—into a black hole. Black holes, Hawking believed, were the ultimate traps, and the bit of information would be irretrievably lost to the outside world. This apparently innocent observation was hardly as innocent as it sounds; it threatened to undermine and topple the entire edifice of modern physics. Something was terribly out of whack; the most basic law of nature—the conservation of information—was seriously at risk. To those who paid attention, either Hawking was wrong or the three-hundred-year-old center of physics wasn’t holding....
Okay, now comes the politics:
The Black Hole War was a genuine scientific controversy—nothing like the pseudo-debates over intelligent design, or the existence of global warming. Those phony arguments, cooked up by political manipulators to confuse a naive public, don’t reflect any real scientific differences of opinion. By contrast, the split over black holes was very real.... It was not a war between angry enemies; indeed the main participants are all friends. But it was a fierce intellectual struggle of ideas between people who deeply respected each other but also profoundly disagreed.
Aw, c'mon, Susskind. The public - who must make a living in circumstances more difficult than you can even guess - is not as naive as you imagine. And the hostility belies your claim that you are all "friends." I have so many better friends, I could lend you some for free.

There are lots of reasons for doubting Darwin and Susskind, and accepting a design of life and the universe.

I have not studied global warming, but do wish warming would hurry up. We had another frost warning last night, in Toronto, at latitude 43N. Good thing I never got around to planting the tomatoes ...

We are told:
The conservation of energy appeared first as a mathematical deduction from our models for classical systems but has been incorporated for all of physics. Let us not forget that the conservation of energy was in question in the 30's vis-à-vis beta decay. Bohr and Heisenberg thought that the conservation of energy was violated whereas Pauli, Rutherford and Dirac did not want to part with the conservation of energy.
So no one really knows? Well, we shall see.

Universe: Arguments against flatness (plus exposing sloppy science writing)

According to the always entertaining New Scientist, "Flat universe may be the new flat earth (Eugenie Samuel Reich, 18 May 2009). We are informed,
FOR centuries the ancients believed the Earth was flat. Evidence to the contrary was either ignored or effortlessly integrated into the dominant world view. Today we dismiss flat-Earthers as ignorant, yet we may be making an almost identical mistake – not about our planet, but about the entire universe.
Which centuries were those? The fact that Earth is a sphere was determined by Eratosthenes in the third century B.C.

"Flat" just means that light beams travel parallel to each other, instead of converging or diverging - these conditions would imply a negatively or positively curved universe. Most astronomers currently believe the universe to be flat, but ...

In a paper accepted for publication in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society (, they took data from WMAP and other cosmology experiments and analysed it using Bayes's theorem, which can be used to show how the certainty attached to a particular conclusion is affected by different starting assumptions.

Using modern astronomers' assumptions, which presuppose a flat universe, they
calculated the probability that the universe was in one of three states: flat, positively curved or negatively curved. This produced a 98 per cent probability that the universe is indeed flat. When they reran the calculation starting from a more open-minded position, however, the probability changed to 67 per cent, making a flat universe far less of a certainty than astronomers generally conclude.

Doubtless. But don't expect them to try that kind of rigour any time soon on origin of life theories or the ability of Darwinian evolution to produce vast amounts of new information.

(Note: Of course, it was always possible to think that Earth was a donut. But the examples of the sun and the moon would deter most reasonable people. Come to think of it, a donut-shaped Earth would be an interestng piece of artwork. Anyway, I think it is time to give up on myths about what our ancestors believed or else cite sources.)

Origin of life: Latest scenario gives RNA world a boost

In "Ribonucleotides and the revival of the "warm little pond" scenario" (ARN Reports, 05/19/09), David Tyler dissects another media meltdown over the origin of life:
According to one commentator, the newly published research provides "one of the great advances in prebiotic chemistry". The media have captured the excitement with headlines like "Chemist Shows How RNA Can Be the Starting Point for Life" (New York Times), "Molecule of life emerges from laboratory slime" (New Scientist) and "How RNA got started" (Science News). These are strong statements and they deserve closer attention. What is going on in the field of OOL research?
What indeed? Given the many scenarios offered for the origin of life, I would guess that maybe one in one hundred might provide useful information.

The biggest single problem, one that researchers gloss over and that pop science media don't reckon, is that evidence for any one theory subtracts from evidence for any other. So it is not clear that an advance in information has occurred.

An argument for RNA world is an argument against clay world or silicon world or prebiotic pizza or prebiotic soup, or whatever other flavour is on offer.

"RNA World" has been around for a while, to be sure. Tyler comments,
The researchers have synthesised both pyrimidine ribonucleotides (but not the purine ribonucleotides). As Van Noorden described it, they have "shown that it is possible to build one part of RNA from small molecules". They have not formed RNA molecules; they have not addressed the chirality problem, they have not generated any biological information and they have not made RNA do anything of biological significance, let alone become clothed with a membrane and undergo replication. Nevertheless, what they have done can be applauded as an elegant example of systems chemistry.
And as Bill Dembski notes,
Excuse me? Doing the chemical reactions in precise sequence and purifying the products at each step hardly seems like recreating realistic prebiotic conditions. In fact, it almost sounds like, dare I say it, intelligent design.
No, wait! It's not design. Those guys aren't taking any credit for it. It all just sort of happened, see?

Here's the abstract, and some links:
Synthesis of activated pyrimidine ribonucleotides in prebiotically plausible conditions Matthew W. Powner, Beatrice Gerland, John D. Sutherland Nature 459, 239-242 (14 May 2009) doi:10.1038/nature08013

At some stage in the origin of life, an informational polymer must have arisen by purely chemical means. According to one version of the 'RNA world' hypothesis this polymer was RNA, but attempts to provide experimental support for this have failed. In particular, although there has been some success demonstrating that 'activated' ribonucleotides can polymerize to form RNA, it is far from obvious how such ribonucleotides could have formed from their constituent parts (ribose and nucleobases). Ribose is difficult to form selectively, and the addition of nucleobases to ribose is inefficient in the case of purines and does not occur at all in the case of the canonical pyrimidines. Here we show that activated pyrimidine ribonucleotides can be formed in a short sequence that bypasses free ribose and the nucleobases, and instead proceeds through arabinose amino-oxazoline and anhydronucleoside intermediates. The starting materials for the synthesis - cyanamide, cyanoacetylene, glycolaldehyde, glyceraldehyde and inorganic phosphate - are plausible prebiotic feedstock molecules, and the conditions of the synthesis are consistent with potential early-Earth geochemical models. Although inorganic phosphate is only incorporated into the nucleotides at a late stage of the sequence, its presence from the start is essential as it controls three reactions in the earlier stages by acting as a general acid/base catalyst, a nucleophilic catalyst, a pH buffer and a chemical buffer. For prebiotic reaction sequences, our results highlight the importance of working with mixed chemical systems in which reactants for a particular reaction step can also control other steps.

See also:

Szostak, J.W., Origins of life: Systems chemistry on early Earth, Nature 459, 171-172 (14 May 2009) doi:10.1038/459171a

Van Noorden, R., RNA world easier to make, Nature News, 13 May 2009 doi:10.1038/news.2009.471

Wade, N., Chemist Shows How RNA Can Be the Starting Point for Life, New York Times, 14 May 2009.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

"Theistic evolution" files: Treading very, very carefully ...

From a Science article by Elizabeth Pain (February 20, 2009):

Szilágyi sees his religious faith and his research efforts as two complementary aspects of his life. Within the scientific environment, "I have some options where I can express my faith," Szilágyi says. He directly referred to God both in the acknowledgements of his master's and doctoral dissertations and while receiving his awards. He runs a Bible-study group for young adults, and together with a friend he founded a Christian scientific group.

But although Szilágyi's views often lie far outside the scientific mainstream, he expresses those views only off-campus and in his personal time. For him, "the debate over evolution, design, creation, supernatural intelligence, etc., is not a scientific question in the first place but the collision of worldviews, the confrontation of materialism and idealism," he says. He takes the Bible literally, but when he lectures on the subject--outside of work--he presents what he calls "the options" and indicates which one "to me … seems to be more probable." But he insists that it is up to "everybody to make his or her own decision."

"As a Christian who works in the field of science, I find it quite important to deal with the relation of Christianity and science," Szilágyi says. But "I know that it is a minefield in today's scientific life and can be quite dangerous for one's scientific career. ...
It is sad when talented people must grovel and cringe just to keep their jobs. The thing is, in the end, that never works.

"Theistic evolution" is just a way of adjusting to a world run by atheists.

Practical questions like "Does the world show evidence of design" are scientific if the answer appears to be no, but unscientific if it appears to be yes. Szilágyi probably knows better but has little choice. However, there are any number of Americans who are genuine useful idiots in these matters, as Barry Arrington has pointed out.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Uncommon Descent Contest Question 2: Why does Earth's unique situation for science discovery threaten many?

This is Contest Question 2 for the Uncommon Descent Earn free stuff contest:" Iowa Professors Mobilize Against Measure on Teaching Alternatives to Evolution" by Peter Schmidt (February 26, 2009):

More than 200 faculty members at 20 Iowa colleges have signed a statement opposing a proposed state law that would give instructors at public colleges and schools a legal right to teach alternatives to evolution.

Well, these were the folks who drove out gifted astronomer Guillermo Gonzalez.

You must pay for the article, and I do not recommend that. We've all pretty much heard it all already.

Instead, for a free copy of Gonzalez's Privileged Planet DVD, go to Uncommon Descent and answer this question: Why does Guillermo Gonzalez's view that Earth is uniquely situated for science discovery threaten so many people?

Here are the Contest rules (pretty easy, really).

You must go to Uncommon Descent, and register to comment. You will not receive any solicitations that come through UD.

Find out why there is an intelligent design controversy:

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Contest Question 1: Does the multiverse help science make sense - or simply destroy science?

This is Contest Question 1 for Earn Free Stuff: Does the multiverse help science make sense - or simply destroy science?

To help you decide, here’s a classic pop science article by Anil Ananthaswamy of New Scientist, fronting the multiverse:

Today’s measurements show the universe to be flat, but the uncertainty in
those measurements still leaves room for space-time to be slightly curved -
either like a saddle (negatively curved) or like a sphere (positively curved).
“If we originated from a tunnelling event from an ancestor vacuum, the bet would
be that the universe is negatively curved,” says Susskind. “If it turns out to
be positively curved, we’d be very confused. That would be a setback for these
ideas, no question about it.”

Until any such setback the smart money will remain with the multiverse
and string theory. “It has the best chance of anything we know to be right,”
Weinberg says of string theory. “There’s an old joke about a gambler playing a
game of poker,” he adds. “His friend says, ‘Don’t you know this game is crooked,
and you are bound to lose?’ The gambler says, ‘Yes, but what can I do, it’s the
only game in town.’ We don’t know if we are bound to lose, but even if we
suspect we may, it is the only game in town.”
Question: For a free copy of Expelled, is this a way to do science? Note, you must register at Uncommon Descent to comment.

Contest introduction: Earn free stuff!: The Uncommon Descent Contest

Why just be a commenter when you can also earn free stuff that is worth money?

Recently, I asked for and received 25 prizes, as follows:

10 DVDs of Expelled,courtesy the producers.

10 DVDs of Privileged Planet, courtesy the producers.

5 subscriptions, including back issues, to the excellent Christian/theistic science and culture mag, Salvo, complete with recent back issues, courtesy the editor-in-chief.

I will pose a question based on a recent news story, and ask for responses within two weeks. I will publish the winning response in a subsequent post.

You must go to Uncommon Descent and register to comment. (You will not receive any solicitations - at least none that originate from us.)


1. No more than 400 words in response. I will select the response I find most interesting and print it as a post. Be succinct.

2. New ideas impress me, even if I disagree. Rants and myths don't. Re abuse: Uncommon Descent is not competing for Troll Hole of the Year, so ...

3. I will not correspond with anyone about the award. My In Tray is already a natural disaster. If you don't win, try again. And who knows, if this contest takes off, I may be offered more prizes.

The first question will come shortly.