Monday, October 31, 2011

Full creative leap

Walter Isaacson wrote the biggest selling Einstein biography, and how now hit the jackpot again with a well-timed biography of Steve Jobs. He plugs both in a new NY Times op-ed:
Mr. Jobs’s intuition was based not on conventional learning but on experiential wisdom. He also had a lot of imagination and knew how to apply it. As Einstein said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.”

Einstein is, of course, the true exemplar of genius. He had contemporaries who could probably match him in pure intellectual firepower when it came to mathematical and analytic processing. Henri Poincaré, for example, first came up with some of the components of special relativity, and David Hilbert was able to grind out equations for general relativity around the same time Einstein did. But neither had the imaginative genius to make the full creative leap at the core of their theories, namely that there is no such thing as absolute time and that gravity is a warping of the fabric of space-time. (O.K., it’s not that simple, but that’s why he was Einstein and we’re not.)
No, that is crazy. Poincare wrote a popular 1902 book that said, "There is no absolute time." Einstein denied reading it, but even all the Einstein scholars agree that he read the 1904 German translation and was inspired by it, well before writing his first relativity paper in 1905.

I am not sure who discovered that gravity is a warping of space-time, but I think that it was Marcel Grossmann in 1913.

The Einstein idolizers like Isaacson are forced to admit that others had all of the relativity formulas before Einstein, and that some of them were smarter than Einstein by any objective measure. So it is difficult to explain why Einstein is credited so much. Isaacson's explanation is typical by saying that they did not make the "full creative leap", whatever that means.
Both Einstein and Mr. Jobs were very visual thinkers. The road to relativity began when the teenage Einstein kept trying to picture what it would be like to ride alongside a light beam. Mr. Jobs spent time almost every afternoon walking around the studio of his brilliant design chief Jony Ive and fingering foam models of the products they were developing.
The biggest and craziest of all the Einstein myths is that he created relativity out of pure thought, without paying any attention to experiment. Isaacson and others say that he just sat around daydreaming about light beams, and proposed it all by himself based on how he thought that the universe ought to be.

It is true that Einstein did not pay much attention to experiments in 1905, but that is only because he was just writing an exposition of the Lorentz-Poincare theory. This is all detailed in my book. This fact is at the core of why Einstein continues to have a bad influence on physics. Theorists are trying to be the new Einstein by dreaming up untestable hypotheses, and hoping for a Paradigm shift.
Mr. Jobs tossed out a few intuitive guesses but showed no interest in grappling with the problem rigorously. I thought about how Bill Gates would have gone click-click-click and logically nailed the answer in 15 seconds, and also how Mr. Gates devoured science books as a vacation pleasure. But then something else occurred to me: Mr. Gates never made the iPod. Instead, he made the Zune. ...

Mr. Jobs’s genius wasn’t, as even his fanboys admit, in the same quantum orbit as Einstein’s. So it’s probably best to ratchet the rhetoric down a notch and call it ingenuity. Bill Gates is super-smart, but Steve Jobs was super-ingenious. The primary distinction, I think, is the ability to apply creativity and aesthetic sensibilities to a challenge.
So what is this supposed to mean? That because Gates made the Zune, he failed to make the full creative leap of an iPod? I wonder if Isaacson has used either one.

The Zune hit the market about 5 years after the iPod. The iPod dominates that market primarily because of the iTunes store and aftermarket accessories. The iPod itself is not any better than the Zune. I personally like other mp3 players much better than the iPod.

This Jobs idol worship is getting tiresome. Dennis Ritchie and John McCarthy also died recently, and they were much more important to today's computers than Jobs.

Update: Bill Gates was asked about the biography:
The Microsoft founder was told by ABC that Jobs "basically said that you were 'unimaginative, had never invented anything and shamelessly ripped off other people's ideas.' That's pretty tough stuff. What's your reaction to that?"
That is funny to hear from Jobs. Here is a video of him saying that his motto is "Good artists copy, great artists steal". Einstein is quoted as saying, "The secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources." I doubt that he said it, but even the Einstein historians have to admit that much of the credit for his creativity is based on him having hidden his sources.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Two supercold qubits

Chris Lee writes:
I have been writing about quantum computing for a while now. If you look at my recent writing, though, you won't find much about quantum computing. Why? Well, it all felt a little repetitive. The publications were still coming, but each new one seemed very much like the previous one. I'm not being cynical here; sometimes you just burn out on a subject.

In that light, it takes something special to attract my attention. It turns out that making something that looks and feels like a complete quantum computer—albeit on the smallest of scales—will definitely attract my attention. What we have here, ladies and gentleman, is nothing more or less than the first quantum microprocessor.
I have been badmouthing quantum computing, so it seem fair to recognize what apppears to be the state of the art. Other recent papers are in this Timeline of quantum computing
. This paper is Implementing the Quantum von Neumann Architecture with Superconducting Circuits.

This paper claims two supercooled qubits, with memory lasting for 400 nanoseconds. They are presumably cooled with liquid helium, but the paper does not say. The technology is only interesting if it can be scaled up. I doubt it.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Competitor trashes my book

I finally got my book listed for sale on Google Books, and I just got a one-star review on Amazon by the author of some competing relativity books:
Undoubtedly, the author has done a very thorough historical research on the origin of the Special Relativity Theory (SRT), and needs to be commended for that. Doubtlessly as well, and unfortunately, he has (hopefully unknowingly) distorted most of those historical facts to prove his preordained thesis: that Einstein stole SRT from the other two giants of the time, Poincare and Lorentz. I could say so much about those distortions but it is enough to cite what Lorentz himself said in 1927:

"Only the true time existed for me. I regarded the transformation of time merely as a heuristic working hypothesis. Thus, the theory of relativity is, in fact, exclusively Einstein's product."

After citing this Lorentz's excerpt in page 150, the author goes through an unbelievably convoluted and twisted argumentation to conclude that "Lorentz did not have any conceptual misunderstanding". What? So a giant of Science had 22 years to meditate about what his most deep intellectual working process was at the time of the SRT birth; on top of it, he has the honesty and nobility of acknowledging it, giving credit to Einstein... and Dr. Schlafly has the nerve of telling Lorentz -the protagonist- what his real understanding was? Remarkable! I could go on and on but I would lose my scientific spirit.
Lorentz was a humble and generous man who scrupulously credited others. He wrote that the chief difference between his theory and Einstein's was that Einstein postulated what was previously proved. That was also the opinion of others at the time, and of some historians today. Lorentz admitted that he did not discover relativistic clock synchronization, but Poincare did years before Einstein. This book demonstrates that Lorenta was correct.

Einstein, by contrast, was a publicity-seeking egomaniac who never credited anyone for anything, if he did not have to. It is ridiculous to assign credit for relativity to Einstein just because Lorentz was more gracious.

Many people describe atomic bombs as converting mass into energy according to Einstein's formula. Maybe Felix Alba-Juez's book describes it differently. Yes, energy is conserved, but it is still useful to describe bombs as releasing energy.

My book repeatedly makes the point that there are often multiple legitimate interpretations of a theory. The Lorentz contraction can be interpreted as an electromagnetic effect on molecular forces, or a property of how we measure space and time. The book says, "Today the preferred view is that relativity is a property of spacetime itself, and Einstein adopted that view after Minkowski popularized it in 1908." [p.101] A recent and well-regarded Einstein biography said, "In a way, the message of relativity theory was that physics was not about real objects, rather, it concerned the measurement of real objects." But that biography also admits that Einstein did not say that. [p.106] The book has a detailed analysis of just what were the main ideas of relativity, and who was responsible for them.

I agree that the discerning reader should get the facts and decide for himself. My book quotes the original sources and gives footnotes to verify everything. Most of the sources are freely available on the web.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Ptolemy was an instrumentalist

It is common to say that Ptolemy's Almagest was wrong because it said that the Sun went around the Earth. I say this opinion is wrong on several levels. The 20th century view is that motion is relativity, so it is legitimate to say that the Earth goes around the Sun or the Sun goes around the Earth.

It is also wrong because, as I explain in my book, geocentrism plays no role in the Almagest model.

I just discovered The cosmos: a historical perspective, by Craig G. Fraser. While he does not agree, at least he acknowledges that Ptolemy can be seen as an instrumentalist:
In the case of Ptolemy, evidence for his instrumentalism is found in his presentation of different geometrical models to explain the same motion, models that are clearly incompatible if they are regarded as material mechanisms to preduce the motion in question. [p.24]
On the other hand, the first book of the Almagest has a discussion of Aristotelian arguments for geocentrism, and book five has a method from Aristarchus for estimating the distance from the Earth to the Moon.

Fraser goes on:
Underlying the notion of a rift between astrcrtorny and cosmology is the view, expresscrl by Ashoe (2001, Tl), that "the role of a geometrical model of the motion of, say, a planet is that of serving as a basis for computing the planet°s position at a certain time in some relevant coordinate system" and that (116) "the principal aint of the Almagest is to enable you to answer the question: Given your location on the Earth, and given the time, in precisely which direction should you look in order to see a given celestial body?" Ancient Greek astronomy is devoted to the calculations of positions of planets as functions of time and includes eclipse theory; it is mathematical and is concerned with prediction. Cosmology attempts to identify the physical arrangement of the heavens; it is qualitative and is concerned with explanation.
I think that is correct. By this distinction, the Almagest was astronomy and not cosmology. It is unfair to say that its cosmology is wrong when it is not a cosmology book.
Ptolemy, in the Alfmagest, accepts as fundamental the concept of planetary order with respect to the Earth. The planet Mercury is always closer to the Earth than the Sun is to Earth, and thc Sun is always eluser to the Earth than Mars is to Earth. Although Ptolemy seems to suggest in the ninth book that the actual ordcr of planets may logically be arbitrary. the existence of an order ltself is never questioned, either implicitly or explicitly; each planet has a fixed zone within which it alone moves, defined by its maximun and minimum distances frum the Earth.
No, Fraser is going off the rails here. I had not noticed that Ptolemy suggested that the order of the planets is arbitrary, but it seems obvious from his model anyway. He puts all of the planets at a nominal distance of 60 units from the Earth, without paying any attention to the possibility that they might collide if they were really all on the same celestial orb. He is just modeling how the planets are seen from Earth. There is no fixed zone for each planet.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Limits to quantum computing

A new paper, Quantum Computing: Theoretical versus Practical Possibility, by G. S. Paraoanu, says:
An intense effort is being made today to build a quantum computer. Instead of presenting what has been achieved, I invoke here analogies from the history of science in an attempt to glimpse what the future might hold. Quantum computing is possible in principle - there are no known laws of Nature that prevent it - yet scaling up the few qubits demonstrated so far has proven to be exceedingly difficult. While this could be regarded merely as a technological or practical impediment, I argue that this difficulty might be a symptom of new laws of physics waiting to be discovered.
Yes, I agree with this. I think that building a quantum computer will eventually seen to be like building a perpetual motion machine. Progress is an illusion. Quantum computing is not really possible in principle, as it depends on ideas that have never been empirically demonstrated.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Philosophers against causality

The famous British philosopher Bertrand Russell said in a 1913 paper (with full article here):
All philosophers, of every school, imagine that causation is one of the fundamental axioms or postulates of science, yet, oddly enough, in advanced sciences such as gravitational astronomy, the word “cause” never appears… To me, it seems that…the reason why physics has ceased to look for causes is that, in fact, there are no such things. The law of causality, I believe, like much that passes muster among philosophers, is a relic of a bygone age, surviving, like the monarchy, only because it is erroneously supposed to do no harm.
I would have thought that this would be disregarded as being uninformed, but philosopher John D. Norton wrote in 2003 that "Russell got it right".

1913 was the year that Grossmann published the field equations for general relativity. It followed Poincare's 1905 theory, and that was directly inspired by causality. It answer the question of how the Sun causes the Earth to stay in Orbit, without Newton's action-at-a-distance.

Norton is a big Einstein idolizer. He must surely know how important causality was to relativity, even if Einstein did not understand it.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Einstein's method compared to creationists

Biologist Michael Zimmerman writes:
A couple of weeks ago the scientific world was shaken by a report out of the European Center for Nuclear Research (CERN) claiming that, after years of study, neutrinos were found to be traveling faster than the speed of light. The results were so shocking because, if accurate, they contradict Einstein's theory of special relativity which asserts that nothing in the universe can travel faster than the speed of light. ...

Independent of whether or not the CERN results are correct, they have an enormous amount to teach us about the very nature of science and how dramatically it differs from the ways in which creationists characterize science. It also highlights the differences in methodology between those practicing science and those promoting the pseudoscience of creationism. ...

How does one go about attempting to overthrow a scientific paradigm? ...

Creationists, on the other hand, simply make assertions. They offer no data and perform no experiments.
That drew this comment:
It is easy to underestim­ate the importance of this CERN discovery, if it turns out to be true. Einstein, whose theories provide the foundation for much of modern physics, didn't come up with relativity though experiment­ation or other inductive methods. He didn't come up with it with the scientific method they teach in school. He did through deduction, much like a philosophe­r. It thus can't be tweaked with other observatio­ns. It would be overthrown outright, though could be retained in a limited extend, like Newton's theories, due to its usefulness­.
If this comment were correct, then Einstein would be in a category with those anonymous creationists that Zimmerman attacks, and a great scientific advance would be like the revealed wisdom of the Bible.

This is not just some kooky comment. It is the mainstream view of academic historians and philosophers of science. Today's universities teach this, and use it as the example of what science is all about.

But they are wrong, as explained in How Einstein Ruined Physics. Relativity was discovered before Einstein thru experimentation. Einstein's role was only to write an exposition of what others had done. He could ignore experiments because he was just explaining an existing theory.

If relativity is the great example of science, then the textbooks should get it correct.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Fodor attacks Darwinism

UC Television just broadcast Debating Darwin: From the Darwin Wars, by Rutgers Professor Jerry Fodor, a philosopher of science and cognitive scientist. He has generated controversy for his attack on the theory of natural selection.

Fodor is concerned that the theory of natural selection does not really tell how to figure out what traits are being selected for. As a result, it does not give a causal theory to explain evolution.

There is a rebuttal, Debating Darwin: How Jerry Fodor Slid Down the Slippery Slope to Anti-Darwinism, by Duke Professor Alex Rosenberg. The argument is more philosophy than science. He says that the disjunction problem is not an objection to teleosemantics, but intrinsic to biological creatures like us. He starts the lecture by saying that Fodor's argument against Darwinism is like Einstein's argument against quantum mechanics. He is also concerned that human well-being could be harm if academics are allowed to doubt Darwinism.

Michael Ruse attacked Fodor's book:
At the beginning of their book, they proudly claim to be atheists. Perhaps so. But my suspicion is that, like those scorned Christians, Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini just cannot stomach the idea that humans might just be organisms, no better than the rest of the living world. We have to be special, superior to other denizens of Planet Earth.
To be accepted among evolutionists, it is not enough to be an atheist and materialist. You have to believe that humans are no better than worms.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

New cosmology needs new science demarcation

Cosmologist Sean M. Carroll writes in Discover magazine:
Things get still more interesting when we add string theory to the mix. String theory is currently the most promising way to explain the fundamental properties of all the particles and forces in our universe. ... In short, string theory predicts that the laws of physics can take on an enormous variety of forms, and inflation can create an infinite number of pocket universes. ...

A lot of people, both inside and outside the scientific community, are viscerally opposed to the idea of other universes, for the simple reason that we can’t observe them—at least as far as we know. ...

These concerns stem from an overly simple demarcation between science and nonscience. ...
Right now we don’t know, and that’s fine. That’s how science works; the fun questions are the ones we can’t yet answer. The proper scientific approach is to take every reasonable possibility seriously, no matter how heretical it may seem, and to work as hard as we can to match our theoretical speculations to the cold data of our experiments.
The main point of the article seems to be that Sean has a lot of untestable speculations, but it is all okay if we accept some redefinition of science.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Copernican Revolution in economics

I don't really think that the Copernican Revolution was that important, but I write about anyway because it is such a big cultural metaphor.

The following exchange took place yesterday on the CNBC Kudlow Report:
Steve Forbes: We need a Copernican Revolution in economics because the Sun does not revolve around the Earth, government spending does not revive economies; reducing the tax burden and the price of good things like productivity, and work and risk-taking, those are the ways you get an economy moving.

Robert Reich: Let's have a Copernican Revolution in the sense of just saying things on television doesn't make them true.
I guess the point is that Forbes would rather focus on private sector growth, and Reich would rather focus on govt spending.

As a metaphor, the Copernican Revolution is often used represent a more enlightened perspective.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

New Copernicus biography

Dava Sobel wrote a new biography of Copernicus:
She ends her book with a lyrical reflection on what Copernicus might make of the universe we know today: “He had initiated a cascade of diminishments. The Earth is merely one of several planets in orbit around the Sun. The Sun is only one star among 200 billion in the Milky Way” — itself just one galaxy “surrounded by countless other galaxy groups stretched across the universe.”

Sounding forgivably Carl Sagan-ish, she concludes, “All the shining stars of all the galaxies are as nothing compared to the great volume of unseen dark matter.” Dark matter itself “is dwarfed by the still more elusive entity, dark energy,” she writes. “The very notion of a center no longer makes any sense.”
This is silly. The ancient Greeks debated the motion of the Earth, and it had nothing to do with diminishment. Copernicus put the Sun at the center of the universe. Saying that there is no center does not validate Copernicus.

The book has a lot of fictionalized dialog about how Copernicus might have collaborated to publish his book.

I think that it is a mistake to make such a big deal out of what Copernicus did. He did not really prove his predecessors wrong. Ptolemy did argue against the motion of the Earth, but his reasoning was not refuted.

Here is what a recent scholarly paper says:
Harald Siebert.11 In what follows, I will restrict my analysis mostly to textual aspects that I found problematic and especially significant. The extrusion effect of the diurnal rotation of the Earth is presented by Galileo in the Dialogue as follows. Now there remains the objection based upon the experience of seeing that the speed of a whirling has a property of extruding and discarding material adher- ing to the revolving frame. For that reason it has appeared to many, including Ptolemy, that if the Earth turned upon itself with great speed, rocks and animals would necessarily be thrown toward the stars, and buildings could not be attached to their foundations with cement so strong that they too would not suffer similar ruin.12

The question immediately arises of Galileo’s attribution to Ptolemy of a similar argument. The implicit reference seems to be to Almagest Book 1, Chapter 7. Here is G. J. Toomer’s translation of the relevant passage from the original Greek (on the basis of Heiberg’s text).
If the Earth had a single motion in common with other heavy objects, it is obvious that it would be carried down faster than all of them because of its much greater size: living things and individual heavy objects would be left behind, riding on the air, and the Earth itself would very soon have fallen completely out of the heavens. But such things are utterly ridiculous merely to think of.13
A more literal reading of the passage has been suggested to me by James G. Lennox, as follows:14
But if there were some motion of the Earth that was one and the same and shared with the other heavy bodies, it is clear that it would overtake everything in descent on account of its much greater magnitude, and the animals and individual heavy bodies floating on the air would be left behind, and the Earth would very quickly fall from the very heaven itself. But even contemplating such things would appear the most laughable thing of all.
This text from the Almagest is highly problematic. It is not obvious, at least to my mind, what the meaning conveyed by the image of an Earth’s falling from the heaven exactly is. The beginning of the passage highlights a common motion. The phrasing is consistent with both a rectilinear and a circular motion. Presumably, however, given the general context of the initial discussion in Chapter 7, a rectilinear motion is intended by Ptolemy. The subsequent portion of Chapter 7 focuses on circular motion explicitly and eventually goes on to dismiss the possibility of a diurnal rotation of the Earth around its polar axis.
What I get out of this is that scholars are unsure of Ptolemy's exactly reasoning. Ptolemy did not just say that the Earth was in the center because Man is the most important thing in the universe. He had technical reasons for doubting the Earth's motion.

At any rate, I think that it is bizarre to devote so much attention to what is just a couple of sentences out of Ptolemy's treatise. The treatise is hundreds of pages long, and was used to predict the appearance of the sky for centuries. Those couple of sentences could not have had that much to do with the rest of the book, or people could have figured out what he meant by how the ideas were used elsewhere. The fact is that his model had little to do with whether the Earth moved or not. That was just a detail where he had some superfluous opinions.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Neutrinos confuse Coyne

Leftist-evolutionist-atheist Jerry Coyne writes about the supposedly superluminal neutrinos:
We are doubtful not because we desperately need to cling to a paradigm that has seemed successful, but simply because overthrowing such a paradigm requires very strong evidence. ...

Krauthammer’s editorial, which sounds so reasonable, actually profoundly mischaracterizes the nature of science. And I think he’s saying these things because he’s trying to diss scientists as adherents to a form of faith. Ten to one he’s either religious or an accommodationist. (I’m just guessing here; I have no idea.)
Coyne is picking on the wrong target. Krauthammer is not particularly religious or conservative or anti-evolution. Coyne is misreading him.

But Coyne gets it wrong when he writes about the "nature of science". The phrase "overthrowing such a paradigm" refers to Kuhnian paradigm shifts, and they are not based on strong evidence. That was the core of Kuhn's theory, and it is the dominant philosophy of science in universities today.

The best examples of paradigm shifts are Copernicus's heliocentrism and Einstein's special relativity. The late Thomas Kuhn and his present-day adamantly insist that there was no strong evidence driving those shifts. Kuhn wrote a whole book on the lack of evidence for Copernicanism. Today's Einstein scholars all say that he ignored Michelson-Morley and other experimental evidence and followed his own aesthetic principles.

This is surprised, but detailed in my book. It is distressing that leading science popularizes get the nature of science so wrong.

Update: Coyne responds:
I didn’t say he got the science wrong; I said he distorted the meaning of why physicists were concerned about why this experiment gave the results it did.

Quantum mechanics began with a novel observation by Planck: that of black-body radiation. That was new evidence, not a reinterpretation of old evidence.
The title to his post was, “Charles Krauthammer gets science wrong”. Yes, the black-body radiation experiment was new evidence, and Max Planck's analysis of it was the birth of quantum mechanics, but Thomas Kuhn never said that was a paradigm shift. Kuhn even wrote a whole book on the subject. A paradigm shift would be a reformulation without evidence. Kuhn was emphatic that there cannot be any objective way of saying that the new paradigm is any better than the old.

One reader defends Coyne by writing:
Do you understand the difference between “getting science wrong” (i.e., misrepresenting the way scientists work) and “getting THE science wrong” (i.e., misunderstanding a scientific finding)?
In my opinion, those who talk about paradigms are nearly always getting science wrong.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Neutrino jokes

There have been some widely circulating jokes about the report that LHC neutrinos were detected in Italy going faster than light. This is typical:
The bartender says "We don't serve your kind." A neutrino walks into a bar.
The idea here is that Henri Poincare invented a convention for clock synchronization in 1898 that used light signals. The premise was that light was the fastest possible communication. Einstein published the same scheme in his famous 1905 relativity paper, and denied that he had read anything by Poincare. Historians agree that Einstein read Poincare's 1902 book, and that the book references the 1898 paper, but they disagree about whether Einstein plagiarized the synchronization convention. If a neutrino could go faster than light, then it would seem to be going backwards in time, according to the light-synchronized clocks. If info could be somehow communicated to the past, then that would violate straightforward notions of causality. The joke is that the lines are out of order, and thus violating causality. Except that the joke does not make any sense. It should be the neutrino that is going backwards in time, not the bartender. A more sensible joke would be:
A neutrino walks out of a bar. The bartender says "We don't serve your kind."
Of course it is still impossible to make sense out of causality violation. The basic problem is illustrated by science fiction plots where someone murders his own grandfather, or something like that. There are physicists who claim that certain scenarios for backwards time travel are not logically or physically impossible, but they are all far-fetched.

There is now a proposed explanation (criticized here) for the neutrinos. It argues that the GPS satellites do not have all of the necessary relativistic corrections. This would be very embarrassing to the GPS folks if true, but some sort of systematic error like this seems likely.

Today's Brewster Rockit comic has a nice illustration of a time travel paradox.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Stenger on Einstein causality

Physicist and skeptic (ie, atheist) Victor Stenger writes:
When you read, "Einstein proved that particles cannot go faster than the speed of light" you have to understand that this was not a consequence of the basic axioms of the theory of special relativity. To prove this he introduced an additional assumption now called the "principle of Einstein causality": cause must always precede effect. In that case, it then follows that we can't have superluminal motion.

Einstein causality certainly seems reasonable based on normal experience. Cause and effect are deeply embedded in our thinking, in both everyday life as well as virtually all of science. Causality is one of those commonsense notions, such as the world is flat, that hangs in there as a "self-evident truth" until some very bright person come along and says: "Maybe not." ...

In modern chemistry and physics today, no distinction is made between cause and effect on the atomic and subatomic scales. Time is completely reversible. A carbon atom and oxygen molecule will combine to give carbon dioxide and energy. You can just as well have energy plus carbon dioxide give a carbon atom and oxygen molecule. ...

Furthermore, many events on the quantum scale are described without even introducing cause and effect. For example, the theories that successfully describe atomic transitions and the decay of nuclei treat these phenomena as occurring spontaneously, without cause.

So, if confirmed, the reported result from CERN or any future observation of superluminal motion will not lead to the overthrow of Einstein's theory of relativity. Its significance will be to overthrow the distinction between cause and effect. At the worst, Einstein might be faulted for taking causality a little too seriously.

Finally, you might want to ponder what effect the demise of causality would have on the notion of God as the ultimate cause of all there is.
Stenger usually knows what he is talking about, but these comments are weird. Causality does apply at an atomic scale. Yes, chemical reactions are often reversible, but it still makes sense to say that some events help cause other events.

I hardly found any references to the "principle of Einstein causality". One was on Quantum Field Theory, where the whole point is to apply it on an atomic scale.

Stenger suggests that if neutrino experiments disprove causality, then they would also undermine God as the ultimate cause. Most physicists are betting that causality will not be disproved. So I guess that Stenger would have to say that God can be the ultimate cause after all.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Claiming credit for the Higgs

G.S. Guralnik has just posted a paper arguing that he should get a share of the credit for any discovery of a Higgs particle, based on a joint paper he cowrote in 1964. That paper did not mention a massive Higgs particle, but he says that it could have been deduced.

The curious thing is that he cites Anderson's 1963 paper, but fails to explain why Anderson should not get the credit. Some say that it should be called the Anderson-Higgs Mechanism.

The paper includes a picture of himself sticking his tongue out. I think that he is trying to emulate the famous picture of Einstein.

I think that it would be very strange to give a Nobel prize to the authors of some 1964 papers, if the Higgs particle is discovered today at the LHC. The scientific merit of those papers should be judged by how well they solved problems with the weak interaction at the time. The work was used to explain why the weak force is short range, and the derived models were quantitatively verified in the 1970s. That is the value of the work.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Science v Spirituality

I have discussed the dispute between Caltech physicist Leonard Mlodinow and New Age spiritualist Deepak Chopra. Now I learn that they have just jointly written a new book, War of the Worldviews: Science Vs. Spirituality. They appear to disagree on everything.

You can see a similar dispute in Chopra'a scathing review of the The Magic of Reality: How We Know What's Really True, a new children's book by Richard Dawkins and Dave McKean. Chopra says:
What is obnoxious about Dawkins' version is his tone of absolute authority about matters that he shows complete ignorance of. Respected physicists like John Archibald Wheeler, Sir Arthur Eddington, Freeman Dyson, Hans-Peter Dürr, Henry Stapp, Sir Roger Penrose, Eugene Wigner, Erwin Schrodinger, and Werner Heisenberg suggest a fundamental role for consciousness in quantum theory and a mental component at the level of biological organisms and the universe itself. ....

I have no interest in defending the God that Dawkins disbelieves in. The real tragedy is that the possibility of an expanded science, one that can answer the most difficult questions, isn't suggested by The Magic of Reality.
What these guys have in common is that they accept hard science and reject traditional religion. They differ in the inferences that they draw from the science. They all firmly believe that science points to a magic reality that can be extrapolated from the data.

I am more of a logical positivist. I think that they are all making claims about reality that cannot be substantiated. They are realists who disagree about what reality is.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Weinberg on directions in physics

Famous physicist Steven Weinberg has a new essay on symmetry. He says:
It is still true in Special Relativity that making observations from a moving laboratory does not change the form of the observed laws of nature, but the effect of this motion on measured distances and times is different in Special Relativity from what Newton had thought. Motion causes lengths to shrink and clocks to slow down in such a way that the speed of light remains a constant, whatever the speed of the observer. This new symmetry, known as Lorentz invariance,4 required profound departures from Newtonian physics, including the convertibility of energy and mass.

[footnote 4] Lorentz had tried to explain the constancy of the observed speed of light by studying the effect of motion on particles of matter. Einstein was instead explaining the same observation by a change in one of nature's fundamental symmetries.

The advent and success of Special Relativity alerted physicists in the twentieth century to the importance of symmetry principles. But by themselves, the symmetries of space and time that are incorporated in the Special Theory of Relativity could not take us very far.
This distinction between Lorentz and Einstein was not recognized by anyone at the time. You cannot find it in the original papers. Just try comparing Einstein 1905 to Lorentz 1892, Lorentz 1895, Lorentz 1899, and Lorentz 1904.

Einstein did not say anything about changing one of nature's fundamental symmetries. That was done by Poincare and Minkowski. Einstein never even expressed any disagreement with Lorentz's theory, and others called it the Lorentz-Einstein theory.

Weinberg treats symmetry as the most important concept in 20th century physics. There is no mention of Poincare, who introduced symmetry groups to relativity. He was the first to show that the Lorentz transformations form a group, to show the covariance of Maxwell's equations for electromagnetism, and to search for laws of physics invariant under a group.

Weinberg also has a new paper, Collapse of the State Vector, that starts:
There is now no entirely satisfactory interpretation of quantum mechanics. The Copenhagen interpretation assumes a mysterious division between the microscopic world governed by quantum mechanics and a macroscopic world of apparatus and observers that obeys classical physics. During measurement the state vector of the microscopic system collapses to one of a number of classical states, in a way that is unexplained, and cannot be described by the time-dependent Schroedinger equation. The many-worlds interpretation and decoherent histories approach assume that the state vector of the whole of any isolated system does not collapse, but evolves deterministically according to the time-dependent Schroedinger equation, but in this interpretation it is hard to see where probabilities come from. Also, the branching of the world into vast numbers of histories is disturbing, to say the least.

Faced with these difficulties, one is led to consider the possibility that quantum mechanics needs correction. There may be an inherently probabilistic physical collapse of the state vector, not limited as in the Copenhagen interpretation to measurement by a macroscopic apparatus, but occurring at all scales, though presumably much faster for large systems.
I am surprised to see him so negative about the interpretations of quantum mechanics.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Relativity more settled than climate science

A lot of science blogs were upset about this paragraph in a Robert Bryce op-ed in the WSJ:
5) The science is not settled, not by a long shot. Last month, scientists at CERN, the prestigious high-energy physics lab in Switzerland, reported that neutrinos might -— repeat, might -— travel faster than the speed of light. If serious scientists can question Einstein's theory of relativity, then there must be room for debate about the workings and complexities of the Earth's atmosphere.
I think that his point is that relativity is much more settled that global warming theory.

I was more disturbed by the next two paragraphs:
Furthermore, even if we accept that carbon dioxide is bad, it's not clear exactly what we should do about it. In September, Tom Wigley of the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder published a report that determined "switching from coal to natural gas would do little for global climate." Mr. Wigley found that the particulates put into the atmosphere by coal-fired power plants, "although detrimental to the environment, cool the planet by blocking incoming sunlight."

If Mr. Wigley's right, then using sources that emit no particulates, like nuclear and natural gas, will not make a major difference in averting near-term changes in the climate caused by carbon dioxide.
The trouble with this argument is that carbon dioxide stays in the atmosphere many times longer than particulates, and nuclear power does not emit carbon dioxide at all. So using nuclear power reduce carbon dioxide, and be better for the environment.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Generations of Einstein detractors

Astrophysicist Tony Rothman writes about Einstein in a 2003 book, Everything's Relative:
He, perhaps alone among physicists, has penetrated the scientific consciousness no less than the public consciousness. And he is in all probability unique in that, despite generations of detractors, he seems to have done virtually everything credited to him.
He changed his mind in a 2006 article, Lost in Einstein's Shadow, as noted here.

Yes, lots of famous scientists are credited for what was really done by others. It is bizarre for Rothman to have written that Einstein was the only exception, and that Einstein really did all of relativity. All Rothman had to do was to read what some of those generations of detractors wrote.

Rothman eventually came around to the view that Einstein's most famous paper, his 1905 special relativity paper, plagiarized the main ideas from Lorentz's 1904 paper, and that Einstein lied about it all of his life. Einstein always denied having seen that 1904 paper.

Most Einstein historians accept his story. The main technical argument is that Lorentz gave the correct formulas for relativistic mass in 1904, and Einstein got them wrong in 1905. They say that if Einstein had plagiarized Lorentz, then Einstein would have gotten the formulas correct.

Whether Einstein lied or not, Lorentz was years ahead of him.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Prize for dark energy

SciAm reports:
An Accelerating Universe: The 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics

Listen to the announcement of the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics, to Saul Perlmutter, Brian Schmidt, and Adam Reiss, from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. Following the formal announcement comes an explanation of the research, which tracked type Ia supernovae to discover that the expansion of the universe was accelerating. And a phone conversation with new Nobel laureate Brian Schmidt
Schmidt spends much of the time saying that he was validating Einstein. The idea is that the dark energy is the energy of the aether, and pervades all of spacetime uniformly.

Einstein proposed a cosmological constant in order to justify a steady-state universe. When he learned that the universe was expanding, he said that the constant was his greatest mistake. This prizewinning work really does not have much to do with Einstein.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Path from experiment to theory

I just found this quote attributed to Einstein:
A theory can be proved by experiment; but no path leads from experiment to the birth of a theory.
The quote is common, but it may be false, as it is also attributed to the German chemist Manfred Eigen.

The quote is crazy. There is a path from experiment to theory in every scientific theory I know.

Einstein and his idolizers have long maintained that he invented special relativity without paying attention to experiment. They say that such scientific revolutions come by a paradigm shift.

The History of special relativity says that all of the important equations were derived to explain the Michelson-Morley experiment. Textbooks have explained relativity this way for a century.

The current Economist magazine says:
In 1887 physicists were feeling pretty smug about their subject. ... a strange observation made that year by two researchers called Albert Michelson and Edward Morley that the speed of light was constant, no matter how fast the observer was travelling. ...

As every schoolboy (and journalist with access to Wikipedia) knows, this flies in the face of special relativity, a theory devised by Albert Einstein precisely to explain the observation of Michelson and Morley.
Yes, every schoolboy knows that special relativity was devised from Michelson-Morley, and thinks that Einstein did it. What they do not realize is that Einstein paid no attention to Michelson-Morley because he was not the one to make the leap from that experiment to special relativity. Einstein just copied Lorentz's conclusions without fully understanding his reasoning.

If this is confusing, I have written a book to explain it.

Quotes are erroneously attributed to Einstein all the time. Today's UK newspaper Globe and Mail starts:
If as Albert Einstein observed insanity is “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results,” then the latest proposal for resolving the euro zone debt crisis requires psychiatric rather than financial assessment.
Einstein never said it.