Monday, January 30, 2012

Grounded in 19C materialism

The UK Guardian reports:
Werner Heisenberg, one of the founding fathers of quantum physics, once observed that history could be divided into periods according to what people of the time made of matter. In his book Physics and Philosophy, published in the early 60s, he argued that at the beginning of the 20th century we entered a new period. It was then that quantum physics threw off the materialism that dominated the natural sciences of the 19th century. ...

Today we live in the 21st century, and it seems that we are still stuck with this narrow and rigid view of the things. As Rupert Sheldrake puts it in his new book, published this week, The Science Delusion: "The belief system that governs conventional scientific thinking is an act of faith, grounded in a 19th-century ideology."
String theorist Lubos Motl adds:
Of course, the main arena where this obsolete viewpoint manifests itself is quantum mechanics. A huge percentage of scientists, especially those who are not working with quantum mechanics on a daily basis and in "practical proportions", still think that the world is ultimately classical in the sense that everything we have ever observed is a reflection of an objective reality that in principle contains some totally accurate information that we could learn (and all of us could agree about) if we only overcame various obstacles all of which are surely just technical in character...

On the other hand, there are lots of crazy people who are convinced that quantum physics is destined to prove their particular religious or spiritual speculations about the usual topics that religious and superstitious people love to care about – afterlife, soul flying away from your body, direct communication with the Creator, methods to make outcomes of quantum experiments more favorable to subjects who have prayed, telepathy, other paranormal phenomena, and so on.
I agree with Motl here. Science writing seems divided among (1) those stuck in 19C materialism, (2) promoters of pseudoscientific mysticism, and (3) physicists who denounce the first two groups, and yet promote their own incoherent interpretations of modern physics. Relativity and quantum mechanics seem less well understood today than in 1930. I have my sharpest criticisms for that third group, because they should know better.

I don't think that the situation is improving. There are textbooks from decades ago that explained quantum mechanics well, and yet modern physicists and respectable science publications continue to say goofy things about quantum mechanics.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Who believes in many worlds?

The Many-worlds interpretation (MWI) of quantum mechanics is often claimed to be widely accepted, such as by this poll:
"Political scientist" L David Raub reports a poll of 72 of the "leading cosmologists and other quantum field theorists" about the "Many-Worlds Interpretation" and gives the following response breakdown [T].

1) "Yes, I think MWI is true" 58%
2) "No, I don't accept MWI" 18%
3) "Maybe it's true but I'm not yet convinced" 13%
4) "I have no opinion one way or the other" 11%

Amongst the "Yes, I think MWI is true" crowd listed are Stephen Hawking and Nobel Laureates Murray Gell-Mann and Richard Feynman. Gell-Mann and Hawking recorded reservations with the name "many-worlds", but not with the theory's content. Nobel Laureate Steven Weinberg is also mentioned as a many-worlder, although the suggestion is not when the poll was conducted, presumably before 1988 (when Feynman died). The only "No, I don't accept MWI" named is Penrose.
However, I believe that this is incorrect. Hawking, Gell-Mann, Feynman, and Weinberg do not favor MWI in their latest opinions on the subject. Eg, this recent paper of Gell-Mann on the subject mentions MWI only in a footnote without any endorsement.

Hawking's recent book on the subject, The Grand Design, talks a lot about the multiverse, but does not mention MWI at all. Weinberg's recent paper on the subject has only negative comments about MWI. Also, PBS says:
[Physicist Richard] Feynman went on record as saying, in essence, "Well, this is not possible because there can't be multiple universes."
Apparently some of these physicists have discussed MWI in the context of the other worlds being mathematical fictions that are not real. That makes MWI trivial. The MWI advocates use the term to mean that the other worlds are real. While there are experiments that would convince me of quantum computing, supersymmetry, global warming, etc, there are no experiments that would convince me of MWI. The concept is incoherent and untestable.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

No quantum gravity is testable

Freeman Dyson explains:
A simple calculation, based on the known laws of gravitation and quantum mechanics, leads to a striking result. To detect a single graviton with a LIGO apparatus, the mirrors must be exactly so heavy that they will attract each other with irresistable force and collapse into a black hole. In other words, nature herself forbids us to observe a single graviton with this kind of apparatus.

I propose as a hypothesis, based on this single thought-experiment, that single gravitons may be unobservable by any conceivable apparatus.

If this hypothesis were true, it would imply that theories of quantum gravity are untestable and scientifically meaningless. The classical universe and the quantum universe could then live together in peaceful coexistence. No incompatibility between the two pictures could ever be demonstrated. Both pictures of the universe could be true, and the search for a unified theory could turn out to be an illusion.
I make a similar argument in my book. I say that there is no incompatibility between the laws of gravitation and quantum mechanics, and that unified theory is untestable and scientifically meaningless.

The current SciAm claims that space is quantized:
Craig Hogan believes that the world is fuzzy. This is not a metaphor. Hogan, a physicist at the University of Chicago and director of the Fermilab Particle Astrophysics Center near Batavia, Ill., thinks that if we were to peer down at the tiniest subdivisions of space and time, we would find a universe filled with an intrinsic jitter, the busy hum of static. This hum comes not from particles bouncing in and out of being or other kinds of quantum froth that physicists have argued about in the past. Rather Hogan’s noise would come about if space was not, as we have long assumed, smooth and continuous, a glassy backdrop to the dance of fields and particles. Hogan’s noise arises if space is made of chunks. Blocks. Bits. Hogan’s noise would imply that the universe is digital.
The author says that he is building a machine to test the hypothesis. I predict that he fails to find any grainyness in space, but the quantum gravity folks are not deterred in the slightest.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Weinberg says Einstein was wrong

I just watched Steven Weinberg on C-SPAN2 Book TV plugging his latest book:
Q: What was Einstein wrong about?

Weinberg: Oh, a number of things. One of the reasons I wrote that essay was to show the spirit of science that even the -- we recognize that even the greatest -- Einstein was certainly the greatest scientist of the twentieth century, and one of the greatest of all times -- could be wrong about things and we are capable of pointing that out. Einstein's work is not a sacred text that we are forbidden to depart from.
Of course Einstein made mistakes. There is a whole book on Einstein's Mistakes. Here is Weinberg's essay on Einstein's mistakes.

Weinberg is a big-shot physicist, and his opinion of Einstein should be taken seriously, but I think that he idolizes Einstein for faulty reasons. Here is Weinberg's 2005 praise for Einstein:
Most advances in the history of science have been marked by discoveries about nature, but at certain turning points we have made discoveries about science itself. These discoveries lead to changes in how we score our work, in what we consider to be an acceptable theory.

For an example look back to a discovery made just one hundred years ago. As you recall, before 1905 there had been numerous unsuccessful efforts to detect changes in the speed of light due to the motion of the earth through the ether. Attempts were made by Fitzgerald, Lorentz, and others to construct a mathematical model of the electron (which was then conceived to be the chief constituent of all matter), that would explain how rulers contract when moving through the ether in just the right way to keep the apparent speed of light unchanged. Einstein instead offered a symmetry principle, which stated that not just the speed of light but all the laws of nature are unaffected by a transformation to a frame of reference in uniform motion. Lorentz grumbled that Einstein was simply assuming what he and others had been trying to prove. But history was on Einstein’s side. The 1905 Special Theory of Relativity was the beginning of a general acceptance of symmetry principles as a valid basis for physical theories.

This was how Special Relativity made a change in science itself. From one point of view, Special Relativity was no big thing — it just amounted to the replacement of one 10 parameter spacetime symmetry group, the Galileo group, with another 10 parameter group, the Lorentz group. But never before had a symmetry principle been taken as a legitimate hypothesis on which to base a physical theory...
No, it was Poincare who clearly articulated the Principle of relativity as applying to all of the laws of physics, and the Lorentz group as a symmetry group. These were published before Einstein wrote anything about relativity, and Einstein's famous 1905 paper lacks these ideas. These are even Poincare's terms, not Einstein's, and everyone accepts them as Poincare's terms. Poincare takes the ideas further, and searches for laws of physics that are invariant under the Lorentz group. He was years ahead of Einstein. So while Weinberg praises the importance of "symmetry principles as a valid basis for physical theories", that is what Poincare did with relativity, not Einstein.

Lorentz did just grumble that Einstein was simply assuming what he and others had been trying to prove. Lorentz said that Einstein postulated what he (Lorentz) and Poincare had proved. Again, there cannot be any serious doubt about it. Einstein's famous 1905 paper start by saying that he is postulating Lorentz's 1895 theorem of corresponding states, without mentioning the 1904 improvements. Poincare's 1905 relativity paper proves the Lorentz invariance of Maxwell's equations, but Einstein's 1905 does not, and merely postulates what Lorentz had proved. This is all explained in my book.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Using Galileo to push climate policy

Water conservationist Peter Gleick (and brother of a famous science writer) writes in Forbes magazine, starting:
When scientific findings have big consequences for policy and politics, anti-science ideology and denial flourish. Religious ideology led the Church to deny Galileo’s scientific findings about the motion of the planets and stars and has fed the continuing denial of evolution in favor of fundamentalist claims of creationism. Stalinist ideology denied the science of genetics and led to a crippling of Soviet agriculture and biology for decades. And a mix of anti-government, pro-fossil fuel, and anti-environmental ideology underlies current denial of human-caused climate change.
Those who use science to promote leftist political policies nearly always invoke Galileo and Darwin. If this history is really so important, then we should get it right.

The Church never denied any of Galileo’s scientific findings. You can read the Wikipedia Galileo affair for details. A historian disects the myth:
According to popular legend, when Galileo presented his telescope to senior cardinals/Jesuits/Aristotelian philosophers/the Inquisition (delete as applicable) they refused to even look through it. This tale has become a standard trope for when we want to attack anyone who won't accept 'obvious' evidence. As the last chapter of my book will be on Galileo, I thought I should try to nail down the primary sources for the legend. ...

So who refused to look through Galileo's telescope? According to the historical record, no one did for certain. The argument was over what they could see once they once they did look.
In particular, no one disputed the moons of Jupiter or the phases of Venus that Galileo discovered and published in 1610. The Church invited him to write a book on heliocentrism, as long as he presented the scientific arguments for and against. His book's main argument was that the motion of the Earth was proved by the once-a-day tides. The Church recognized that this argument was bogus. There are two tides a day, not one, and they are caused by the gravity of the Moon, not the motion of the Earth. The book ignored the Tychonic system, the leading geocentric system of the previous 40 years.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Dawkins believes a Galileo myth

Richard Dawkins told this story a year ago:
I was told this by a tutor, Arthur Cain, and I have never found the original source. Perhaps you know it? Galileo was once demonstrating something through his telescope to a learned man, who said something like this, "Signor Galileo, your demonstration is so convincing that, were it not that Aristotle positively states the contrary, I would believe you." For a modern scientist, the issue is simple: Galileo had a telescope. Aristotle didn't. Yet, in the mind of this savant, Aristotle's word still trumped Galileo's. This sums up, in my mind, what is so baffling about the whole way of thinking that I presume characterises theology.
Dawkins was University of Oxford's Professor for Public Understanding of Science, and spends much of his time attacking theology. And yet his presumed characterization of theology is some story that he has never been able to verify?!

The myth here is that Catholic Church scholars refused to look thru his telescope, and accept his discoveries. The myth is completely false. Galileo had to rush his 1610 book, Starry Messenger, into print because others were seeing the same thing thru the newly discovered telescope. No Church scholar or anyone else disputed what could be seen thru his telescope.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Symmetry and conservation laws

One of the most important results of 20th century mathematical physics Emmy Noether's theorem of 1918. She proved that there is a correspondence between symmetries of a physical system, and conservation laws like the principle that energy cannot be created or destroyed.

A new paper traces the history of this idea, and finds that a similar idea was discovered earlier:
In this paper we provide a translation of a paper by T. Levi-Civita, published in 1899, about the correspondence between symmetries and conservation laws for Hamilton's equations. We discuss the results of this paper and their relationship with the more general classical results by E. Noether.
Levi-Civita is also credited (by Einstein biographers) with tutoring Einstein on general relativity. Einstein had published some wrong papers on the subject, until Levi-Civita and Hilbert showed him how the equations could be Lorentz covariant.

Peter Woit writes that Noether's theorem is his favorite deep explanation:
It turns out that there’s a general principle at work: for any symmetry of a physical system, you can define an associated observable quantity that comes with a conservation law:

1. The symmetry of time translation gives energy
2. The symmetries of spatial translation give momentum
3. Rotational symmetry gives angular momentum
4. Phase transformation symmetry gives charge

In classical physics, a piece of mathematics known as Noether’s theorem (named after the mathematician Emmy Noether) associates such observable quantities to symmetries.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Lorentz and Einstein theories were the same

A new paper on Simulation of Kinematics of Special Theory of Relativity notes that the computation can use Lorentz's pre-Einstein theory, or Einstein's theory, and the results are the same.
In popular and educational books on the theory of relativity, it is frequently claimed that Michelson and Morley experimentally proved the fallacy of the ethereal concept. This is an untrue statement. The outcome of the Michelson-Morley experiment demonstrated the impossibility of detecting ether using an experiment of this type, but not the absence of ether. One must not lose sight of the fact that the results of the Michelson and Morley experiment did not prevent the notions about the ether from be ing retained for a good two decades after they obtained their negative measurement result. Michelson himself and Lorentz shared these notions. ndeed, FitzGerald and Lorentz explained this result by way of the longitudinal shortening of objects moving through the ether, i.e., they explained it within the fram ework of the ethereal world view. And so it was that in the waning years of his life, in 1952, Einstein wrote in the article “Relativity and the Problem of Space”: Concerning the experiment of Michelson and Morley, H. A. Lorentz showed that the result obtained at least does not contradict the theory of an ether at rest” [3].

In this regard, the remark of a proponent and popularizer of the theory of relativity, M. von Laue, should also be clear, who wrote: “…it was experimentally impossible to make a choice between this theory (the Lorentz theory) and Einstein’s theory of relativity, and if the Lorentz theory nonetheless took a back seat – even though it still has proponents among physicists – this then undoubtedly occurred due to reasons of a philosophical nature” [4].
Yes, von Laue wrote that in 1914, so it is old news.

Today, relativity is usually taught as being inspired by the Michelson–Morley experiment. The Lorentz electron theory was invented to explain the experiment. Einstein denied that the experiment was of any importance to him, because Lorentz had already used to relativity to explain it.

Monday, January 16, 2012

The annual Edge question

John Brockman’s asks his annual question of prominent intellectuals:
There are a lot of good answers, but Eric R. Weinstein's answer was puzzling:
But the most important lesson is that, at a minimum, Einstein's minor dream of a world of pure geometry has largely been realized as the result of a large group effort. All known physical phenomena can now be recognized as fashioned from the pure, if still heterogeneous, marble of geometry through the efforts of a new pantheon of giants. Their achievements, while still incomplete, explain in advance of unification that the source code of the universe is overwhelmingly likely to determine a purely geometric operating system written in a uniform programming language. While that leaves Einstein's greater quest for the unifying physics unfinished, and the marble something of a disappointing patchwork of motley colors, it suggests that the leaders during the years of the Standard Model stasis have put this period to good use for the benefit of those who hope to follow.
I studied under one of the professors he mentions, and I still don't know what he is talking about. Einstein's dream has not been realized. What he calls "the Standard Model stasis" was a period of great advance in understanding elementary particles, but he seems to be talking about string theory, which has been a big failure.

There are some other explanations given that don't really explain anything.

Classics professor James J O Donnell answered:
Claudius Ptolemy explained the sky. He was an Egyptian who wrote in Greek in the Roman empire, in the time of emperors like Trajan and Hadrian. His most famous book was called by its Arabic translators the Almagest. He inherited a long ancient tradition of astronomical science going back to Mesopotamia, but he put his name and imprint on the most successful and so far longest-lived mathematical description of the working of the skies.

Ptolemy's geocentric universe is now known mainly as the thing that was rightly abandoned by Copernicus, Kepler, Newton, and Einstein, in progressive waves of the advancement of modern science, but he deserves our deep admiration. Ptolemy's universe actually made sense.
That's right. Ptolemy was one of the great scientists of all time. We don't know how much he relied on earlier works, but the Almagest is a work of genius. It ia appalling that anyone would say that he was not scientific.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Cosmic simulations and bad history

Brian Hayes writes A Box of Universe in the current American Scientist, and gives a good explanation of large-scale cosmological simulations.
A History of the History of the Universe
Our view of the universe — and of our own place in it — was famously upset by the Copernican revolution of the 16th century. But the past 100 years have seen even more radical upheavals in cosmology. ...

Edwin P. Hubble, examining the spectra of galaxies, ... Hubble showed that their velocity is proportional to their distance. The whole universe is expanding. ...

Bruno’s Legacy
Four hundred years ago, the idea that the Earth goes around the Sun rather than vice versa was not just a scientific breakthrough but also a cultural bombshell. People were asked to reimagine the world they were living in. Not everyone welcomed the opportunity. Books were burned. In the case of Giordano Bruno, an author was burned.

In the modern world, cosmological revolutions seem to cause hardly a ripple in public consciousness. Inflation, dark matter, dark energy — these ideas also call for a reimagining of the world we live in, but they have provoked very little fuss outside the community of science. It’s certainly a relief that no one will be burned at the stake over matters of cosmological doctrine. But are we really more liberal and open-minded, or just not paying attention?
His history is bad. No books or cosmologists were burned. Giordano Bruno was burned by the Romans in 1600 for denying the divinity of Jesus Christ. The Catholic Church never censored a scientific publication. The expansion was discovered by Lemaitre, not Hubble.

The modern equivalent of the Galileo Affair is when a scientist submits an article with a conclusion that is not justified by the data and reasoning in the article. That happens every day, of course, and the journal editor either rejects the article or makes the author revise his conclusions. Galileo only got into trouble when he stubbornly refused to restrict his conclusions to what could be justified from his evidence.

I don't know why public consciousness should care so much about inflation, dark matter, and dark energy. Inflation has not been verified. Dark matter makes the spiral galaxies look prettier, and that's about all. Dark energy is mainly surprising because physicists have been telling us for a century that there was no aether.

Saying that baryonic matter is only 5% of the universe is supposed to impress us, but we have always heard stories like that. It is like saying stars are only 10% of the baryonic matter, or that Sun-like stars are only 5% of the stars, or that planets are only 5% of the solar system, or that rocky planets are only 5% of the planets, or that the Earth's crust is only 5% of the Earth, or that people live on only 5% of the land on Earth, or that we only use 5% of our brains, etc.

Hayes has written a lot of good articles, but he has fallen for some overly dramatic historical myths.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Bell's paradox

The most divisive issue in physics is Bell's inequality. Some say that it is one of the most profound discoveries in the entire history of science. Others say that it is a trivial observation of no great significance.

No Nobel Prizes have been given for any work related to Bell's inequality, altho a Wolf Prize was given in 2010.

Around 1930, Einstein and others thought that quantum mechanics was wrong, and needed a hidden variable theory. Bohr, John von Neumann, and others convinced everyone that hidden variable theories don't work, and that quantum mechanics is correct. The matter has been settled for 80 years.

In 1964, Bell proposed a way to prove that the hidden variable theories do not work. His plan succeeded, and affirmed what everyone had believed since 1930.

Variants of Bell's argument are published frequently. I mentioned one below.

So all Bell's inequality does is to demonstrate the wrongness of some long-discarded idea. It is like finding a new way to disprove the Plum pudding model of the atom, that was popular from 1904 to 1909. A more recent example is below.

Yet, entire books have been written on why Bell's inequality is so profound. I guess their point is that Bell somehow put his finger on what is strange about quantum mechanics, but it is only in comparison to some other (hidden variable) theory that is just as bizarre as quantum mechanics.

Monday, January 9, 2012

The quantum could be real

As mentioned below, a recent paper on quantum mechanics got a lot of attention for supposedly proving something about the reality of wave functions. Holger F. Hofmann (German name, Japanese address) explains precisely what is wrong with it, consistent with what I said here:
In a recent paper (arXiv:1111.3328), Pusey, Barrett and Rudolph claim to proof that statistical interpretations of quantum mechanics do not work. In fact, their proof assumes that all statistical interpretations must be based on hidden variable realism. Effectively, the authors demand from the start that reality must be decided by mathematics, and not by measurements. If this unjustified assumption is dropped, the quantum formalism has a natural statistical interpretation that fully explains the paradox presented by the authors. It is therefore possible to conclude that the paradox actually supports the statistical interpretation, demonstrating once more that quantum mechanics should not be explained by measurement independent realities that are never observed and therefore lie beyond the reach of empirical tests. ...

Although the paper also presents a nice little toy model that certainly has merit as a useful addition to the cabinet of quantum paradoxes, the analysis of the model does not really support the sweeping conclusions drawn fromit. Specifically, the authors merely analyze a hidden variable model, implicitly assuming that any statistical theory of quantum mechanics must also assume a measurement independent reality. ...

The explanations given by Bohr, Heisenberg, von Neumann and many others all assume that (a) quantum mechanics should be interpreted statistically, and (b) hidden variables do not work. ...

I would like to point out that the conclusions presented by the authors actually support the statistical interpretation of the quantum state, once the empirically unjustified assumption of dogmatic realism is dropped. In fact, the authors provide several arguments in favor of the statistical interpretation - mainly, that the collapse of the wavefunction is fully explained and loses its mystery. Likewise, entanglement loses much of its mystery.
That's right. It seems as if there is always some physicist arguing that some particular hidden variable theory does not work, and claiming that he has discovered something profound about quantum mechanics being contrary to reality. No, saying that hidden variable theory does not work has been conventional wisdom since 1932. That is what Einstein was complaining about in the 1930s, as well as Bohm and Bell later.

The faulty assumption is indeed that "reality must be decided by mathematics, and not by measurements." From that assumption, they claim to prove that there is no reality. But another possibility is that there is an objective physical reality, but we don't have a good mathematical representation of it. Quantum mechanics gives us a good mathematical theory of measurement, but there is no proof that all physical entities are amenable to our mathematical models.

Different philosophies of reality are possible, as there are different interpretations of quantum mechanics. But it is inexcusable to promote some particular view as being correct, because some hidden variable theory is wrong, without even mentioning the orthodox view that was proposed in 1925 and accepted in 1932. That 1932 view is still tenable today.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Twin paradox video

NewScientist has a new video explaining the relativity twin paradox in one minute.

The paradox is actually due to Paul Langevin in 1911. It should not be so surprising because a similar age difference occurs without relativity. In any realistic space travel scenario beyond our solar system, humans would have to be frozen to withstand the long travel times or the rapid acceleration. Frozen bodies do not age. So a space traveler returning from a long-distance trip would always be much younger than his twin back home.

Relativistic explanations get confusing when you ask whether the acceleration is causing the aging difference. The answer is yes in the sense that the acceleration defines the asymmetry between the twins, and without accelerating one twin back into the frame of the other, you would never notice the aging difference. But time dilation is caused by velocity, not acceleration. Understanding the effect of acceleration on clock synchronization is part of the paradox.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

No other sentient life

The WSJ reviews a recent book, Alone in the Universe: Why Our Planet Is Unique by John Gribbin:
The author's conclusion: Earth is the sole abode of intelligent life in the galaxy, the product of a profoundly improbable sequence of cosmic, geologic and climatic events—some thoroughly documented, some inferable from fragmentary evidence—that allowed our planet to become a unique refuge where life could develop to its full potential.

Chief among these, paradoxically, was a near-cataclysmic planetary collision during Earth's infancy, which gave birth to the moon. Such encounters were relatively common in the harum-scarum chaos of an early solar system that teemed with veering planets and asteroids. In its suicidal blow against our world, the Mars-size impactor generated enough heat to liquefy both itself and Earth's exterior. Its dense, metallic core plunged inward to join our planet's existing metallic center, while the rest swept up part of the fiery terrestrial shell to form the moon.

One consequence of Earth's tumultuous youth was the thinning of its rocky crust. This has provided the planet with a lively tectonic existence, complete with vapor-spewing volcanoes, continents that divide and drift, and an ecologically advantageous global-temperature-regulation system. Earth's swollen metallic core remained liquid; its constant churning gives rise to electrical currents that generate a far-flung magnetic cocoon that shields us from dangerous solar particles. (The creation of Eden is far more complex than one might have heard.)

Another fortuitous coincidence on Mr. Gribbin's checklist is the moon's large size relative to Earth, a ratio unique in the solar system. Without such a gravitational partner to restrain the disrupting tugs of the sun and Jupiter, our planet might suffer paroxysms of axis-tilting. (Try to run a civilization when your once-temperate hemisphere suddenly heels over to an Arctic orientation.) Mr. Gribbin outlines how a series of climate-altering Ice Ages and tectonic shifts benefited human ancestors roaming the grasslands of East Africa. ...

Mr. Gribbin admits the possibility —even probability—that elementary life forms have arisen elsewhere in the galaxy. But the object of his scientific and statistical scrutiny is intelligent extraterrestrial life. While he cannot prove a galaxy-wide absence of other civilizations, he presents an array of modern, research-based evidence that renders that conclusion eminently reasonable.
I agree with this. Between science fiction stories and astronomy news, most people probably have the view that the scientific evidence favors the increased likelihood of sentient life on other planets. But there is a lot of evidence to the contrary, and I believe that it is likely that we are the only intelligent life in the Milky Way galaxy.

There are many other galaxies, and this leaves the possibility of sentient life in other galaxies. But even those science fiction stories do not suggest communication with other galaxies.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Einstein book finds new readers

Einstein just showed up on the NY Times list for ebook nonfiction bestsellers:
10 OUT OF MY LATER YEARS, by Albert Einstein. (Open Road.) A collection of essays from the years 1934-50 address social, religious and educational questions.
Einstein was an embarrassment during this period. He was a Communist fellow traveler who actively supported Communist front groups. He had an affair with a Soviet agent who had been sent to compromise him. He claimed to be a pacifist but he supported the development of nuclear bombs as long as the plan was to kill Germans.

He was a secular Jew and a Zionist. He denied believing in a personal God but also denied being an atheist. He identified with the Jewish people more than anyone else.

His scientific writings from this period were worthless. His work on relativity was mostly wrong. His main project was unified field theory, but his papers were nonsense. No one has ever been able to get any value out of anything he wrote on the subject. The hot subject in physics of the day was quantum mechanics, but he never understood or accepted it. The best that can be said of his work of this period is that quantum mechanics was clarified when other physicists explained how wrong Einstein was about the theory.

An Amazon reviewer writes:
Einstein is the greatest modern example of Keynes dictum of how it is 'ideas' that change the world. He is the example of how one man alone, thinking, transformed our understanding of nature, and our power to change it. In these essays the main interests of Einstein's life are touched upon. He writes with clarity and modesty.
No, Einstein did not write with modesty. He was an egomaniac who spent his whole life exaggerating his accomplishments, and scheming to get credit for the work of others.

It is a big myth that created relativity and transformed our understanding of nature by pure thought all by himself. Read my book how this myth is wrong in every detail. His work on relativity relied very heavily on others, and those others followed experiments and influenced the development of physics.

A lot of people read Einstein thinking that he was some sort of unique source of wisdom. Forget it. He wasn't.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Atheists against free will

Leftist-atheist-evolutionist Jerry Coyne writes in USA Today:
You may feel like you've made choices, but in reality your decision to read this piece, and whether to have eggs or pancakes, was determined long before you were aware of it — perhaps even before you woke up today. And your "will" had no part in that decision. So it is with all of our other choices: not one of them results from a free and conscious decision on our part. There is no freedom of choice, no free will. And those New Year's resolutions you made? You had no choice about making them, and you'll have no choice about whether you keep them.

The debate about free will, long the purview of philosophers alone, has been given new life by scientists, especially neuroscientists studying how the brain works. And what they're finding supports the idea that free will is a complete illusion.
He also brags that his fellow atheists agree with him. He says that atheist materialist philosophy requires physical determinism, and neuroscience research says we sometimes start making a decision a couple of seconds before we are consciously aware of it. (He says that brain scans show mental activity as much as seven seconds before a decision is completed.)

If this is depressing, Coyne assures us that there are two advantages to believing that we are mindless automatons; we have an increased appreciation for evolution and we gain empathy for all the other mindless automatons:
There's not much downside to abandoning the notion of free will. It's impossible, anyway, to act as though we don't have it: you'll pretend to choose your New Year's resolutions, and the laws of physics will determine whether you keep them. And there are two upsides. The first is realizing the great wonder and mystery of our evolved brains, and contemplating the notion that things like consciousness, free choice, and even the idea of "me" are but convincing illusions fashioned by natural selection. Further, by losing free will we gain empathy, for we realize that in the end all of us, whether Bernie Madoffs or Nelson Mandelas, are victims of circumstance — of the genes we're bequeathed and the environments we encounter. With that under our belts, we can go about building a kinder world.
No thanks. Those are not advantages to me. But ignoring the moral, religious, and psychological issues, my concern here is whether there is really proof of physical determination. It is a strange assumption considering that the overwhelming consensus among physicists is that the world is not deterministic. They say that probabilities are essential to quantum mechanics. Those probabilities do not necessarily settle the free will question; see the Free will theorem for a discussion.

Einstein did not believe in either quantum mechanics or free will. He was a determinist. Most physicists say that he was proved wrong.

I accept quantum mechanics, but I deny that it requires either a probabilistic or determinist view. It says nothing about free will. I think that it disproves Coyne's argument that a scientific worldview requires denying free will. Quantum mechanics is our most fundamental physical theory, and it does not require the sort of determinism that Coyne describes.

Update: Coyne now complains about new proposed laws about the teaching of evolution, because he sees them as a threat to his view of evolutionary science.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

No unobservable superstructures are real

Lubos Motl writes:
What I finally want to emphasize is that all this redundant and "objectively real but totally unobservable" superstructure – from many worlds to extra invisible Bohmian positions of particles (which can't help in the case of spin or particle production, anyway) or other hidden variables to GRW collapses prescribed from above – is only being invented because certain people behave as bigots who are unable to admit that the physics research in the 20th century has irreversibly falsified all intrinsically classical models of the reality. All the new "fanciful stuff" with tons of choices and processes (superluminal communication, preferred frames, collapses, the length scale to which the GRW collapses shrink the wave function, the frequency of such flashes etc.) that can never be observed and with the infinite amount of fine-tuning and obfuscation that is needed for it to fake the real, relativistic quantum world (to guarantee that none of the new predictions is really observed) is only being proposed because some people's bigotry has no limits. Their dogmas about "realism" are more important for them than any amount of empirical evidence, more important for them than everything that science has actually found.

People, those bigots who are still denying that the insights of quantum mechanics inevitably force one to be careful about the positivist, instrumentalist principles and that forces us to understand science as a gadget to organize our observations rather than to promote the idea about an "independent real world": give up, apologize, shut up, and calculate!
I would not call them bigots, but it is a little strange that physicists are so bent on promoting a concept of reality that requires a totally unobservable superstructure. If that is what people mean by realism, then I am not a realist.

I go farther than Motl and say that quantum mechanics is a positivist theory. You can believe in many worlds interpretation if you want, but it is not part of quantum mechanics. I also say that probabilities are not part of (positivist) quantum mechanics. Probability is just one of those unobservable superstructures that has been tacked on to the theory to make people feel better. It has no scientific validity.

The probabilities give a way of thinking of waves as particles, but they do not help predict observations. Not directly, anyway. The realists would rather think about particles than waves. It seems to me that the realists ought to be willing to accept whatever is necessary, and the electrons are certainly not particles in the ordinary sense of the word. They are subject to Heisenberg uncertainty, and do not have definite positions and momenta.