Saturday, December 31, 2011

Unique universe was not the hope

Physicist Alan P. Lightman writes in the current Harper's magazine:
An example of a fundamental principle in physics, first proposed by Galileo in 1632 and extended by Einstein in 1905, is the following: All observers traveling at constant velocity relative to one another should witness identical laws of nature. From this principle, Einstein derived his theory of special relativity. An example of a fundamental parameter is the mass of an electron, considered one of the two dozen or so “elementary” particles of nature. As far as physicists are concerned, the fewer the fundamental principles and parameters, the better. The underlying hope and belief of this enterprise has always been that these basic principles are so restrictive that only one, self-consistent universe is possible, like a crossword puzzle with only one solution. That one universe would be, of course, the universe we live in. Theoretical physicists are Platonists.
No, the underlying hope was not for a unique self-consistent universe. Here is Galileo's ship from 1632:
Shut yourself up with some friend in the main cabin below decks on some large ship, and have with you there some flies, butterflies, and other small flying animals. ... With the ship standing still, observe carefully how the little animals fly with equal speed to all sides of the cabin. ... When you have observed all these things carefully (though doubtless when the ship is standing still everything must happen in this way), have the ship proceed with any speed you like, so long as the motion is uniform and not fluctuating this way and that. You will discover not the least change in all the effects named, nor could you tell from any of them whether the ship was moving or standing still.
This is an argument against uniqueness. He was arguing that we would not notice the motion of the Earth, and this only implies that geocentric and heliocentric models are indistinguishable.

Here is Poincare's 1900 relativity paper, where he addresses his previous criticisms of Lorentz's relativity theory:
t would no doubt seem strange that in a monument raised to the glory of Lorentz I would review the considerations which I presented previously as an objection to his theory. I could say that the pages which follow are rather in the nature of an attenuation rather than a magnification of that objection.

But I disdain that excuse, because I have one which is 100 times better: Good theories are flexible. Those which have a rigid form and which can not change that form without collapsing really have too little vitality. But if a theory is solid, then it can be cast in diverse forms, it resists all attacks, and its essential meaning remains unaffected. That's what I discussed at the last Congress of Physics.

Good theories can respond to all objections. Specious arguments have no effect on them, and they also triumph over all serious objections. However, in triumphing they may be transformed.

The objections to them, therefore, far from annihilating them, actually serve them, since they allow such theories to develop all the virtues which were latent in them. The theory of Lorentz is one such, and that is the only excuse which I will invoke. ...

It appears that the principle of relativity of motion, which is not clearly true a priori, is verified a posteriori and that the principle of reaction should follow. ... It is the case that, in reality, that which we call the principle of relativity of motion has been verified only imperfectly, as shown by the theory of Lorentz.
Einstein's famous 1905 relativity paper called Poincare's relativity principle a "postulate", but that was not how relativity was discovered. Poincare says that it is "clearly" not a postulate, and was not motivated by a search for a unique theory.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Lorentz at the end of his Latin

Among the arguments for crediting Einstein over Lorentz and Poincare for relativity is that Einstein was such a true believer that he ignored experiment. By contrast, Lorentz and Poincare used reasoning that was firmly rooted in the Michelson-Morley experiment, and they were willing to abandon the theory if newer experiments contradicted it.

The smoking gun is this letter from Lorentz to Poincare (using automated translation, grammar not fixed):
Leiden, March 8, 1906
Mr. and honored colleague
It is already too long since I neglected to thank you for the important paper on the dynamics of the electron you kindly sent me. Needless to say I have studied with great interest and I was very happy to see my conclusions confirmed by your considerations. Unfortunately my hypothesis of the flattening of the electrons is in contradiction with the results of new experiments of Kaufmann and I think being forced to abandon it, so I'm at the end of my Latin and it seems impossible to establish a theory which requires the complete absence of an effect of translation on the electromagnetic and optical phenomena.
I would be delighted if you could clarify the difficulties that arise again.
Please accept, dear colleague, the assurance of my sincere devotion.
HA Lorentz
Max Planck criticized the accuracy of Kaufmann's results, and a couple of years later, the experiments were shown to be consistent with relativity.

I think that it is to Lorentz's credit that he recognized Poincare's contribution to relativity, and accepted that an experiment could disprove it. This is good physics, not proof of an inability to accept new ideas.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

No empty space in atoms

The Bad Astronomer writes about a UK BBC TV video:
Why are atoms mostly empty space?

Professor Brian Cox is a physicist in England, very well-known there as a popularizer of science. ...

I like to use the example of sitting in a tub, and rhythmically pushing your body along its length with your toes. ...

Electrons around an atomic nucleus work the same way. It’s more complicated than your bathtub, but the principle is the same. The electrons can only exist where the wave crests and troughs add up correctly. They literally cannot exist anywhere else. They’re like standing waves, as Brian shows.
It is bad science to say that atoms are mostly space. If electrons are like standing waves, as Cox and Plait say, then most of the volume of atoms consists of standing waves, not empty space.

Saying that an atom is empty space suggests that something could be put in that empty space without affecting the atom. But that cannot be done. The explanation that atoms are mostly empty space assumes electrons are particles that can be isolated. But that is contrary to the Heisenberg uncertainty principle and the rest of quantum mechanics.

The latest post from the Bad Astronomer wants to stop a certain type of vaccine information, and make an emotional appeal about a dead baby. Maybe he is a little out of his expertise.

See also the defense of becox of this statement from the video:
The Pauli exclusion principle means that no electron in the universe can have the same energy state as any other electron in the universe, and that if we does something to change the energy state of one group of electrons (rubbing a diamond to heat it up in his demo) then that must cause other electrons somewhere in the universe to change their energy states as the states of the electrons in the diamond change.
He is talking about a theoretical effect that is not measurable unless the electrons are very close. I think that it is a bizarre and unscientific point. It is like saying that my finger has a graviational effect on Venus. If so, it is negligible and unobservable.

Cox replies:
The more "presentational" question posed by some on the forum - namely that one shouldn't say that everything is connected to everything else for fear of misinterpretation - is interesting. In my view, the interpretation of quantum theory presented above is not only valid, but correct in the absence of new physics - and therefore everything IS connected to everything else. I was very careful to point out in the lecture that this does not allow any woo woo shite into the pantheon of the possible, as I think I phrased it.

My general position is that when communicating with the public we shouldn't spend our time triangulating off nutters. I'm having to deal with this in spades in my current series, Wonders of Life, where it is tempting to try to give creationists no ammunition at all by avoiding areas of doubt when describing the origin of life and the evolution of complex life on Earth. My strategy is to ignore such concerns, because these people shouldn't occupy any of our time! If we tried to take account of every nob head on the planet, we wouldn't have time to make the programs or write the books.
What is he saying here? The idea that everything is connected to everything else seems contrary to causality. If that is what Cox means to say, then he ought to say whether it is contrary to causality. Otherwise, what does it mean, but to hint at woo woo?

I guess I agree that a TV show on the Wonders of Life should not censor facts favorable to creationists, but why is he even tempted? Scientists should not be at all bashful about saying what they do not know, even if the creationists have an explanation.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Suppression of science alleged

The NY Times reports:
The most famous case of scientific suppression remains that of Galileo, who in 1633 was forced by the Roman Catholic Church to disavow his finding that the Earth revolves around the Sun. But over the centuries, the big clashes between science and the authorities came to center on highly destructive arms.
The story was prompted by the US govt not wanting to publish details of some research it funded on how to engineer a deadly bird flu virus.

But it is just not true that Galileo was ever forced to disavow any scientific finding. He was free to publish any evidence he had for the motion of the Earth. He was even invited to publish a book with the arguments for and against the motion of the Earth. He just was told not say that the motion of the Earth was proved unless he really had the proof. And he did not. He had faulty arguments that were shown to be wrong by Church scientists.
In 1953, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed after being convicted of passing bomb secrets to Moscow.

But atomic lore kept leaking. Today, nine nations have nuclear weapons, and dozens more are said to possess the secretive information, the technical skills and — in some cases — the materials needed to make them.

A new field came under scrutiny in the mid-1970s, when Washington tried to clamp down on publications in cryptography — the creating and breaking of coded messages. A breakthrough threatened to make it easer for the public to encrypt messages and harder for federal intelligence agencies to decipher them.
Washington did not try very hard to clamp down. No papers were supressed. The field exploded after the US govt put the Data Encryption Standard into the public domain. It was the first time a state-of-the-art encryption system had been published.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Popular story on vacuum energy

Nature magazine listed its most popular stories of 2011, and this story was emailed more than any other story in its history:
A team of physicists is claiming to have coaxed sparks from the vacuum of empty space1. If verified, the finding would be one of the most unusual experimental proofs of quantum mechanics in recent years and "a significant milestone", says John Pendry, a theoretical physicist at Imperial College London who was not involved in the study.
This is what has always been called the aether, and I commented on these results before.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Einstein crowdsourced relativity

Ron Rosenbaum attacks new catchphrases in Slate:
Crowdsourcing: Hasn’t it occurred to anyone—especially the new media genius types who abuse the concept — that the archetypal crowd is a lynch mob? A Nuremberg rally? And, really, no matter how many studies you cite, you’re not going to convince me you get smarter by asking a lot of ignorant people questions. Did Einstein “crowdsource” the Special Theory of Relativity? Or was that just the General Theory?
Einstein was crowdsourcing, a lot more than people realize.

When Einstein published his first relativity paper in 1905, he was supporting the leading electron theory of the day. Lorentz used it to explain the 1887 Michelson-Morley experiment, and to predict relativistic mass in 1899. That mass prediction was confirmed in 1901-1903, and Lorentz got the Nobel prize in 1902. Poincare perfected Lorentz's theory. Abraham had in alternate theory in 1902-1904, but Lorentz and Poincare were the leading theoretical physicists in Europe, and Einstein was just endorsing their view. See History of special relativity for details.

While some Einstein historians argue that Einstein worked in isolation in 1905 and independently reinvented some of what Lorentz and Poincare had done, they all agree that his development of general relativity was based on him picking the brains of the leading experts in differential geometry and tensor analysis. He got the Ricci tensor from Levi-Civita, the covariant field equations from Grossmann, the Lagrangian from Hilbert, the solar system model from Schwarzschild, the cosmological models from de Sitter and others. Einstein biographers even describe him as being tutored on these subjects that formed the core of what he soon called general relativity.

I cannot expect a Slate columnist to know this. I am just pointing out the popular image of Einstein being an iconoclast loner who invented revolutionary ideas, and how that image is completely wrong. For more details, see How Einstein Ruined Physics.

Poincare supposedly did not understand his theory

I criticized a new paper by Emily Adlam. Her conclusions are strange:
In summary, Poincaré’s use of the Lorentz transformations differed from Einstein’s in two key ways. First, for Poincaré, the transformations are not used to give relations between any two inertial frames of reference - they are defined only relative to the ether rest frame, so that the velocity v appearing in the formula must always refer to a velocity with respect to the ether rest frame, i.e. an absolute velocity.
Poincare stress that the Lorentz transformations form a group. The first fact about groups is that any group element is just like any other. He never mentions the aether because the group makes any particular reference frame irrelevant. So Adlam is wrong -- Poincare knew that Lorentz transformations connect any two frames.
Moreover, even if we restrict ourselves to transformations involving the ether rest frame, Poincaré’s usage does not coincide with Einstein’s, since for Einstein the transformations express a relationship between coordinate systems, whereas for Poincaré they are merely a means of predicting the physical changes that a system undergoes when set in motion relative to the ether.
So I guess that she is trying to say that Einstein's transformations act only mathematically on the coordinates, while Poincare's act physically. But then she says:
Thus Poincaré not only failed to give a physical interpretation to the Lorentz transformations, he also failed to appreciate the full range of situations in which they can be applied.
This is weird. She says that Poincare's transformations were physical, and then says that he had no physical interpretation.
1.3 Assessment
In light of Poincaré’s limited understanding of the relativity principle and the Lorentz transformations, it seems inaccurate to say that he had any significant intimations of special relativity before Einstein’s 1905 papers.
Except for Einstein's rivals, I don't know of any other scientists who get insulted in this way. Usually historians just give them credit for what they did, and do not concoct explanations for how they did not understand what they were doing.

She goes on to concede that, while Poincare did not understand what he was doing, his discoveries were essential to all further developments in relativity:
This is not to deny that he made extremely important contributions to the development of the theory, but his achievements in this area were largely mathematical: formulating the notion of the Lorentz group and finding its invariants, formulating the notion of a four-vector and finding quantities that transform like four-vectors, interpreting the Lorentz transformations as rotations in four-dimensional space. These are results that follow from the mathematical structure of the equations, not from any physical understand-ing of their significance; they paved the way for the powerful mathematical formalism developed by later workers in the field, but did not provide the essential physical insight that provides the formalism with its application.
She is describing the core of special relativity. Poincare published this, and neither Einstein nor anyone else, except for Minkowski and others who got it from Poincare. She is saying that the modern mathematical formulation of relativity was discovered by someone who did not have any physical understanding of the significance of the formulas. This is like saying that Shakespeare wrote great plays, but he did understand the content of what he wrote. Adlam concludes:
Special relativity is first and foremost a physical theory, and in the absence of an understanding of the physical significance of the Lorentz transformations, Poincaré cannot be said to have formulated a theory approximating special relativity.
Wow. So Adlam not only gives Poincare less credit than Einstein, she denies that Poincare had any physical understanding or relativity theory.

Poincare's 1905 relativity theory was superior to Einstein's. The only way to explain it away is to argue that Poincare somehow did not understand what he was saying. Adlam does this by alternately arguing that Poincare's papers were too mathematical or too physical. Her argument does not even make any sense.

Even if she were right that Poincare's explanation had some philosophical defect, the reasonable thing is to just describe the defect and give him credit for the rest. But that won't leave much credit for Einstein, and no one has been able to find any defect in Poincare's work. So Adlam has to somehow claim that Poincare did not understand what he was doing with a very contrived argument.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Fine-Tuning of the Universe

Luke A. Barnes writes a new paper, The Fine-Tuning of the Universe for Intelligent Life:
Victor Stenger's recent book, The Fallacy of Fine-Tuning: Why the Universe is Not Designed for Us. Stenger claims that all known fine-tuning cases can be explained without the need for a multiverse. Many of Stenger's claims will be found to be highly problematic. ...

We conclude that the universe is fine-tuned for the existence of life. Of all the ways that the
laws of nature, constants of physics and initial conditions of the universe could have been,
only a very small subset permits the existence of intelligent life.
The prevailing explanations are God and the multiverse:
The concept of other universes has been proposed to explain why our universe seems to be fine-tuned for conscious life as we experience it. If there were a large number (possibly infinite) of different physical laws (or fundamental constants) in as many universes, some of these would have laws that were suitable for stars, planets and life to exist.
The multiverse is not a scientific explanation at all.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

When Darwin got Wallace letter

There is a theory that Darwin stole from Wallace
Darwin stole from Wallace:
Alfred Wallace ... has a stronger claim to the theory of evolution by natural selection than has Darwin. In 1855, Wallace's first paper on evolution prompted Charles Lyell to warn Darwin that Wallace seemed close to solving the "species problem" and to urge him to publish his own theory.

Three years later, while studying the fauna of the Malayan archipelago, Wallace completed his theory and sent it to Darwin from the island of Ternate on 9 March 1858. Sent to England on the same boat was a letter to Frederick Bates, who received it on 3 June. It seems that Darwin wrote to Joseph Hooker on 8 June, saying he had found the "missing keystone" that enabled the completion of his evolution theory, while on 18 June, he wrote that he had just received a letter from Wallace proposing a theory of evolution identical to his own – a very suspicious chronology! Although it initially became known as the Darwin-Wallace theory, Darwin took the glory and Wallace was largely forgotten. Lacking Darwin's establishment connections, Wallace was shabbily treated and should be recognised as at least an equal in the Wallace-Darwin theory of evolution.
Jerry Coyne tells of a new paper that says Darwin did not get the Wallace letter until June 18, but the letter has been lost and we do not know for sure what it said.

This is the wrong dispute. Natural selection was not a new idea. Credit should go for new ideas, or showing that some idea is measurably better than some competing idea. Darwin collected a lot of good observations and arguments, but natural selection and "survival of the fittest" were more slogans than science.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

More on Adlam and Einstein

I criticized a new paper crediting Einstein over Poincare for relativity. Here is more. Adlam writes:
I think the intuition that the electromagnetic worldview plays some role here does contain an element of truth. I suggest that the differentiating factor was not Poincaré’s commitment to the electromagnetic world-picture itself, but to the explanatory strategy associated with it. Although he was willing to accept the existence of particles which are not charged and forces which are not electromagnetic in nature, he remained faithful to the underlying motivation for the electromagnetic picture, which is that all observable phenomena should be be accounted for by appeal to the nature of the fundamental particles and forces. This idea was certainly not unique to proponents of the electromagnetic worldview; a similar motivation lies behind the mechanical world-picture, upon which all macroscopic phenomena are produced by Newtonian interactions between moving microscopic particles. ...

It is therefore not surprising that Poincaré never thought to view the relativity principle as explanatory in and of itself; as Katzir puts it: ‘instead of deducing consequences from (the relativity principle), he used it mainly to confirm or refute various hypotheses.’ Poincaré regarded the principle rather like a general summary of the empirical evidence, such that that theories which violated it could be taken to have been indirectly disconfirmed. ...

Einstein’s 1905 paper was revolutionary precisely because he broke with the long-standing tradition of explaining the macroscopic in terms of the microscopic. Rather than taking force laws as fundamental, he made the relativity principle the basic axiom of his theory and used it to derive constraints on the form of the laws governing phenomena at both the microscopic and macroscopic levels.
She is crediting Einstein for ignoring empirical evidence, and for failing to give a mechanical explanation. She admits that Einstein did not say these things, and even implied that he disagreed with them. Nevertheless it underlies the reasoning for crediting Einstein for relativity, and for revolutionizing physics.
The interesting point is why Poincaré thinks it is important for P to form a group. In a reconstruction of the proof, Zahar writes ‘In view of the relativity principle, all allowable frames are equivalent, which entails that P must form a group.’ (1981, p. 191) This is the appropriate modern justification for the group requirement, but it is not clear that it is a correct description of Poincaré’s thought process, since he never mentions the relativity principle in the course of his derivation. Of course, he might have thought its relevance was so obvious that the link did not need to be made explicit, but this seems unlikely in view of his understanding of the Lorentz transformations.
Yes, the importance of symmetries forming a group was obvious to Poincare. He called it the Lorentz group in a short relativity paper that Einstein had access to before he submitted his own 1905 relativity paper. But Einstein himself did not seem to understand the importance of the Lorentz transformations forming a group.
Einstein, on the other hand, is much more willing to discard conventions - perhaps the clearest example is his willingness to adopt a new synchrony convention which violated traditional ideas about the nature of time. Poincaré would theoretically have agreed with Einstein that simultaneity is determined by a synchrony convention, but unlike Einstein he always retained the traditional conventions in his scientific work.
She refers to Poincaré–Einstein synchronisation, which, as Wikipedia notes, was published by Poincare in 1898, 1900, and 1904, before Einstein first wrote about it in 1905.

The problem with these Einstein scholars is that they fail to address the basic facts -- that Poincare had the Lorentz group, the synchronization, the spacetime, the mechanics, and everything else years ahead of Einstein. The only way to credit Einstein is to invent some interpretation of his paper that is contrary to what Einstein believed and contrary to modern physics, and brag that it somehow distinguished Einstein from Poincare.

When physicists promote goofy ideas like string theory and multiverse, they always claim to be following Einstein's example of revolutionizing physics by postulating principles and ignoring evidence. I detail this in my book.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Mathematics Revolution

Mathematician Frank Quinn writes about the logicism that made mathematics 100% precise about a century ago:
The physical sciences all went through "revolutions": wrenching transitions in which methods changed radically and became much more powerful. It is not widely realized, but there was a similar transition in mathematics between about 1890 and 1930. The first section briefly describes the changes that took place and why they qualify as a "revolution", and the second describes turmoil and resistance to the changes at the time. The mathematical event was different from those in science, however. In science, most of the older material was wrong and discarded, while old mathematics needed precision upgrades but was mostly correct. The sciences were completely transformed while mathematics split, with the core changing profoundly but many applied areas, and mathematical science outside the core, relatively unchanged. The strangest difference is that the scientific revolutions were highly visible, while the significance of the mathematical event is essentially unrecognized. The section "Obscurity" explores factors contributing to this situation and suggests historical turning points that might have changed it. ...

To a first approximation the method of science is "find an explanation and test it thoroughly", while modern core mathematics is "find an explanation without rule violations". The criteria for validity are radically different: science depends on comparison with external reality, while mathematics is internal.

The breakthrough was development of a system of rules and procedures that really worked, in the sense that, if they are followed very carefully, then arguments without rule violations give completely reliable conclusions.
There are people who argue that Hilbert's program was a failure, but they are wrong. It successfully axiomatized mathematics. See this for details.

Quinn also explains:
Many scientists and engineers depend on math- ematics, but its reliability makes it transparent rather than appreciated, and they often dismiss core mathematics as meaningless formalism and obsessive-compulsive about details. This is a cul- tural attitude that reflects feelings of power in their domains and world views that include little else, but it is encouraged by the opposition in elementary education and philosophy. In fact, hostility to mathematics is endemic in our culture. Imagine a conversation:

A: What do you do?
B: I am a ---.
A: Oh, I hate that.

Ideally this response would be limited to such occupations as "serial killer", "child pornographer", and maybe "politician", but "mathematician" seems to work. It is common enough that many of us are reluctant to identify ourselves as mathematicians. Paul Halmos is said to have told outsiders that he was in "roofing and siding"!
Mathematicians in the movies are usually portrayed as crazy.

Monday, December 19, 2011

An explanans for the relativity explanandum

Emily Adlam's a new paper on Poincare and Special Relativity, cited here, argues:
I have claimed that the fundamental insight of Einstein’s 1905 paper is that the relativity principle can be taken as an explanans rather than an explanandum. However, I do not mean to assert that Einstein ever saw the matter in this light; indeed, I am inclined to favour the view that he did not.
Wikipedia defines:
An explanandum is a phenomenon that needs to be explained and its explanans is the explanation of that phenomenon. For example, one person may pose an explanandum by asking "Why is there smoke?", and another may provide an explanans by responding "Because there is a fire". In this example, "smoke" is the explanandum, and "fire" is the explanans.
So Einstein explained relativity without realizing that he was doing so. She argues that the relativity principle should be taken as a postulate instead of being explained, as she acknowledges that Lorentz complained "Einstein simply postulates what we have deduced". (She cites a 1916 publication for this remark, but Lorentz said it much earlier.) A similar argument was made in a Einstein book by a NY Times science editor:
In a way the message of relativity theory was that physics was not about real objects; rather, it concerned the measurements of real objects. ... No such declarations of grandeur, of course, intruded on the flat and somewhat brisk tone of the [1905 Einstein relativity] paper.
The bizarre thing about this argument is that it adopts a subtle philosophical interpretation of relativity; it admits that Einstein did not have that interpretation; it has strange complaints about Poincare's philosophy that are not rooted in anything he actually said; it points to some technical differences between Poincare's and Einstein's papers; and it end up insisting on credit for Einstein.

The foolishness of this argument should be obvious. If it is so important to give credit for relativity, then the credit ought to be for the essence of what is great about the theory. Einstein should not be credited for an interpretation that he rejected. Adlam argues:
Since 1905, the issue of explanation in special relativity has been made more complex by the emergence of Minkowski spacetime. ... Thus the introduction of Minkowski spacetime is no reason to abandon the successful explanatory strategy introduced by Einstein’s 1905 paper: spacetime structure is merely a convenient mathematical representation of the original theory, not a new element which must be separately incorporated into our explanations.
But Adlam does not mention the fact that Minkowski spacetime geometry was introduced by Poincare in 1905. She admits that the spacetime geometry was a convenient mathematical representation of the relativity explanation that escaped Einstein's awareness.

The easiest way to understand the credit for relativity is to look at the enormous effort that Einstein scholars have been making to credit him over the last century, and to see how contrived and silly their arguments are. Usually a priority argument simply points to the ideas that someone had first. But no one has ever been able to find an idea that Einstein had first. This is all detailed in my book.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

A kind of mathematical theology

Lawrence Krauss writes:
If the Higgs is discovered, it will represent perhaps one of the greatest triumphs of the human intellect in recent memory, vindicating 50 years spent building one of the greatest theoretical edifices in all of science and requiring the construction of the most complicated machine that has ever been made.

That's the good news. But if the Higgs is all that is found at the LHC, it will mean that the other crucial empirical guidance that physicists now need to try and understand truly fundamental questions about our existence – from understanding whether all four forces in nature are unified in some grand theory, to determining what may have caused the big bang – will still be absent. Answering these questions may be beyond the technical and financial capabilities of this generation.
I agree with that, except that I believe that pursuing a grand unification is foolish. As John Horgan defended his 2002 bet:
“The dream of a unified theory, which some evangelists call a ‘theory of everything,’ will never be entirely abandoned. But I predict that over the next twenty years, fewer smart young physicists will be attracted to an endeavor that has vanishingly little hope of an empirical payoff. Most physicists will come to accept that nature might not share our passion for unity. Physicists have already produced theories–Newtonian mechanics, quantum mechanics, general relativity, nonlinear dynamics–that work extraordinarily well in certain domains, and there is no reason why there should be a single theory that accounts for all the forces of nature. The quest for a unified theory will come to be seen not as a branch of science, which tells us about the real world, but as a kind of mathematical theology.”
I agree with him that there will be no Nobel prize for string theory.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Tycho's reasoning and Copernican theology

Science history books often say that Copernicus was right and Tycho was wrong about the motion of the Earth, but I believe that view is mistaken because Tycho was much more scientific than Copernicus.

Christopher M. Graney writes a new paper:
Tycho Brahe, the most prominent and accomplished astronomer of his era, made measurements of the apparent sizes of the Sun, Moon, stars, and planets. From these he showed that within a geocentric cosmos these bodies were of comparable sizes, with the Sun being the largest body and the Moon the smallest. He further showed that within a heliocentric cosmos, the stars had to be absurdly large - with the smallest star dwarfing even the Sun. (The results of Tycho's calculations are illustrated in this paper.) Various Copernicans responded to this issue of observation and geometry by appealing to the power of God: They argued that giant stars were not absurd because even such giant objects were nothing compared to an infinite God, and that in fact the Copernican stars pointed out the power of God to humankind. Tycho rejected this argument.
He quotes an 1836 encyclopedia:
The stars, to the naked eye, present diameters varying from a quarter of a minute of space, or less, to as much as two minutes. The telescope was not then invented which show that this is an optical delusion, and that they are points of immeasurably small diameter. It was certain to Tycho Brahé, that if the earth did move, the whole motion of the earth in its orbit did not alter the place of the stars by two minutes, and that consequently they must be so distant, that to have two minutes of apparent diameter, they must be spheres as great a radius at least as the distance from the sun to the earth. This latter distance Tycho Brahé supposed to be 1150 times the semi-diameter of the earth, and the sun about 180 times as great as the earth. Both suppositions are grossly incorrect; but they were common ground, being nearly those of Ptolemy and Copernicus. It followed then, for any thing a real Copernican could show to the contrary, that some of the fixed stars must be 1520 millions of times as great as the earth, or nine millions of times as great as they supposed the sun to be.. Delambre, who comments with brief contempt upon the several arguments of Tycho Brahé, has here only to say, `We should now answer that no star has an apparent diameter of a second.' Undoubtedly, but what would you have answered then, is the reply. The stars were spheres of visible magnitude, and are so still; nobody can deny it who looks at the heavens without a telescope; did Tycho reason wrong because he did not know a fact which could only be known by an instrument invented after his death?
The modern view is that motion is relative, and the motion of the Earth depends on your frame of reference. So Copernicus and Tycho were more or less equally correct about the motion of the Earth. Much more important was the collection and assimilation of the data, and the reasoning about the data. Tycho failed to accurately measure the diameter and parallax of the stars, but his reasoning was brilliant based on what he had.

Friday, December 16, 2011

New paper credits Einstein for relativity

Emily Adlam has posted a new paper on Poincare and Special Relativity. Like many other Einstein historians and idolizers, her object is to badmouth the idea that anyone else could have discovered relativity:
Poincaré’s contributions to the field of special relativity were undoubtedly invaluable, but nonetheless those contributions do not constitute an independent discovery of the theory. ... he cannot be credited with an overall conceptual grasp of the theory.
Here is her first argument:
One element which links the work of both Poincaré and Einstein is a preoccupation with the principle of relativity. But it is important to be aware that Einstein and Poincaré were not working with precisely the same principle. Compare their two fomulations:

Poincaré: ‘the laws of physical phenomena must be the same for a motionless observer and for an observer experiencing uniform motion along a straight line.’ (1904) 1

Einstein: ‘The laws by which the states of physical systems undergo change are not affected, whether these changes of state be referred to the one or the other of two systems of co-ordinates in uniform translatory motion.’ (1905)

The crucial difference between these formulations is that Poincaré finds it necessary to refer to an observer, while Einstein does not. The difference has been noted by Katzir: ‘In contrast to Einstein, who denied the existence of absolute motion, Poincaré denied the possibility to detect it.’ (2005) As a result Einstein’s principle leads to stronger constraints: for Einstein, there can be no difference at all between the forms of the laws of nature in different inertial frames, whereas Poincaré can accept that the laws of nature take one form relative to a privileged frame and a more complicated form relative to all other frames, provided they work together in such away that this difference between frames does not have any observable consequences.

[Footnote 1] In his 1902 essay ’Relative and Absolute Motion’, Poincaré gave a different formulation of the principle of relativity, omitting the reference to an observer: ‘the movement of any system whatever ought to obey the same laws, whether it is referred to fixed axes or to the movable axes with are implied in uniform motion in a straight line.’ (1902, p.111) But this version appears in a philosophical paper rather than a scientific one, and as we shall see, Poincaré’s scientific views must be kept separate from his philosophical ones.
This is typical of the bizarre and strained arguments used to support Einstein. First, the whole point is contradicted by the footnote. Second, if you accept a difference in the principles, then Poincare's version is superior and closer to the modern understanding. Third, Einstein's version is contradicted by the cosmic microwave background radiation, which defines a privileged frame for observing motion.

Adlam's argument is essentially this: Poincare and Einstein said essentially the same thing about relativity; Poincare said it first; Einstein's version has some slight philosophical advantages if you ignore what Poincare wrote in philosophical papers; therefore Einstein gets the credit for the discovery of relativity.

I wrote the book, How Einstein Ruined Physics, because the Einstein literature is dominated by otherwise-intelligent scholars making completely ridiculous arguments in a desperate attempt to credit Einstein for relativity. I will comment on the rest of Adlam's paper when I read it.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Rule for identifying quacks

Gary Taubes says in an interview:
And then I wrote a book called Cold Fusion, on the great scientific fiasco of the 1989-1990; and when I came out of that I said: Look, anyone, when I was talking to journalists -- one of my rules of writing now is whenever someone invokes Galileo as a personal role model, he's a quack. Meaning? Give me an example. Well, the joke is in effect I just invoke Galileo by using epicycles and perfect circles. But the argument is literally the paradigm is wrong. And as long as your paradigm is wrong, if you believe obesity is just about eating too much and expending too little, this energy balance idea, it's all calories-in/calories-out, you can't get the right answer.
That is a good rule. Besides Galileo, I would add Nicolaus Copernicus, Nikola Tesla, Albert Einstein, and Thomas Kuhn (or paradigm shift).

I am not saying those people are all quacks. They were each brilliant in their own ways. But they are patron saints to the quacks.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

No Einsteins need apply

A UK Guardian columnist writes:
The kind of idle pastime that might amuse physicists is to imagine drafting Einstein's grant applications in 1905. "I propose to investigate the idea that light travels in little bits," one might say. "I will explore the possibility that time slows down as things speed up," goes another. Imagine what comments these would have elicited from reviewers for the German Science Funding Agency, had such a thing existed. Instead, Einstein just did the work anyway while drawing his wages as a technical expert third-class at the Bern patent office. And that is how he invented quantum physics and relativity.

The moral seems to be that really innovative ideas don't get funded – that the system is set up to exclude them.
No, Einstein did not invent quantum physics and relativity.

Einstein is the only Nobel science prize winner who got the prize for spare time work while holding a day job doing something else. If that were really how science is advance, then I would be all in favor of govt funding agencies looking at spare time grand projects.

But it never happens. First, Einstein was not really an outsider. He was finishing up is doctoral degree at a prestigious university while he took the patent office job. Second, Einstein's great 1905 papers were derivative expositions of research done by others, and did not have any significant impact on the advance of quantum physics or relativity. Third, there is no one else with an Einstein story.

Even if you don't believe me that the Einstein story is bogus, you ought to be able to verify that there are no other Einsteins. Attempting to fund Einsteins will fail.

Anthropologist John Hawks points out that Einstein did not need any grant money because he was not using any equipment or resources, and comments:
Most ideas that appear to be transformative in the end turn out to be bunk. Someone who compares himself to Einstein is overwhelmingly likely to be a charlatan. There should probably be a "No Einsteins need apply" clause in every federal grant program.
Hawks is right. He doesn't realize that Einstein himself was a charlatan, but he is not a physicist and I would not expect him to. But at least he recognizes the futility of funding anyone with an Einstein story.

I do believe in being skeptical about any story of extraordinary human achievement, when it is also claimed that no similar accomplishment has ever been achieved by anyone else.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Scientism is the S-word

Wikipedia defines Scientism as:
Scientism refers to a belief in the universal applicability of the systematic methods and approach of science, especially the view that empirical science constitutes the most authoritative worldview or most valuable part of human learning to the exclusion of other viewpoints.
MIT physicist Ian Hutchinson writes
One of the most visible conflicts in current culture is between “scientism” and religion. Because religious knowledge differs from scientific knowledge, scientism claims (or at least assumes) that it must therefore be inferior. However, there are many other important beliefs, secular as well as religious, which are justified and rational, but not scientific, and therefore marginalized by scientism. And if that is so, then scientism is a ghastly intellectual mistake. ...

Scientism is, first of all, a philosophy of knowledge. It is an opinion about the way that knowledge can be obtained and justified. However, scientism rapidly becomes much more. It becomes an all-encompassing world-view; a perspective from which all of the questions of life are examined: a grounding presupposition or set of presuppositions which provides the framework by which the world is to be understood. In other words, it is essentially a religious position.
Sigmund responds on a leftist-atheist-evolutionist blog:
I’ve begun to view the use of the term “scientism” as the philosophical analogy of using the “N-word”. Scientism, the “S-word”, might be used as a positive term by a tiny minority of individuals, trying to reclaim the term from those flinging it about as a pejorative, yet the standard use remains that of a slur. The aim seems to be to portray those committed to methodological naturalism as devoid of emotion or feeling—the type of individual who would probably judge the merit of a Beethoven symphony using an oscilloscope.

This is not to say that noting the use of “scientism” is entirely without value.

Like the N-word, hearing the S-word tells us precious little about whom it is aimed but reveals a huge amount about the speaker.
Wow, these folks lose their nerve easily.

Michael Shermer wrote in SciAm in 2002:
What is it about Hawking that draws us to him as a scientific saint? He is, I believe, the embodiment of a larger social phenomenon known as scientism. Scientism is a scientific worldview that encompasses natural explanations for all phenomena, eschews supernatural and paranormal speculations, and embraces empiricism and reason as the twin pillars of a philosophy of life appropriate for an Age of Science.
Like any other philosophical term, it is defined a little differently by those who espouse it and those who denounce it. Scientism is defensible. It is funny how many aggressive anti-religion scientists refuse to defend it.

Update: A new book against scientism is Monopolizing Knowledge: A scientist refutes religion-denying, reason-destroying scientism, by Ian Hutchinson. Some chapter are online free.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Life on Earth is special

It seems like every week there is a science story about discovery of new planets and how there could be life on other planets.

Slashdot summarizes:
Planetary scientists say there are aspects to our planet and its evolution that are remarkably strange. In the first place there is Earth's strong magnetic field. No one is exactly sure how it works, but it has something to do with the turbulent motion that occurs in the Earth's liquid outer core and without it, we would be bombarded by harmful radiation from the Sun. Next there's plate tectonics. We live on a planet that is constantly recycling its crust, limiting the amount of carbon dioxide escaping into the atmosphere — a natural way of controlling the greenhouse effect. Then there's Jupiter-sized outer planets protecting the Earth from frequent large impacts. But the strangest thing of all is our big Moon. 'As the Earth rotates, it wobbles on its axis like a child's spinning top,' says Professor Monica Grady. 'What the Moon does is dampen down that wobble and that helps to prevent extreme climate fluctuations' — which would be detrimental to life. The moon's tides have also made long swaths of earth's coastline into areas of that are regularly shifted between dry and wet, providing a proving ground for early sea life to test the land for its suitability as a habitat. The 'Rare Earth Hypothesis' is one solution to the Fermi Paradox (PDF) because, if Earth is uniquely special as an abode of life, ETI will necessarily be rare or even non-existent. And in the absence of verifiable alien contact, scientific opinion will forever remain split as to whether the Universe teems with life or we are alone in the inky blackness.
There are many other unusual things about Earth, the history of Earth, and life on Earth.

For all the discoveries, there is really no more reason to believe in life on other planets than there was 50 years ago. It is plausible that there might only be one Earth-like planet per galaxy. And maybe even less.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

New arguments against hidden variables

I was skeptical about a new paper on the reality of the quantum wave function, because it claims to disprove the probabilistic interpretation of quantum mechanics.

Part of the confusion is that the title of the new paper is "The quantum state cannot be interpreted statistically". That is misleading, as it is certainly possible to interpret the quantum wave function statistically. What the paper argues is that the wave function cannot be just a probability distribution for hidden variables.

The paper has generated a lot of attention, and another new paper explains it and gives a similar result. It is Completeness of quantum theory implies that wave functions are physical properties.

Here is the issue. By 1926, it was clear that Heisenberg uncertainties were essential to quantum mechanics. Von Neumann's 1932 textbook considered the possibility that the uncertainties could be eliminated by a hidden variable theory, and argued that no such theory was possible. Hidden variables are physical characteristics, like position, momentum, or spin, which determine the nature of a something, but which are not directly observable. Einstein coauthored a 1935 paper arguing for such a theory anyway.

You can think of an electron wave function as telling you the probability that the electron will be found in a particular region. But if you think of the electron as a point particle, and the wave function as just a probability distribution for the position of that point particle, then you will run into trouble because Heisenberg uncertainty says that the electron cannot be a point particle.

While a lot of work has gone into this issue, most physicists consider the Bell test experiments to be the definitive proof that the hidden variable theories are impossible.

These new papers are additional arguments against hidden variables. They confirm what everyone since 1932 has believed, except for a few curmudgeons like Einstein.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Duff defends string theory

String theorist M. J. Duff has just posted String and M-theory: answering the critics. It is a followup to this 2007 debate transcript and podcast. I noted before that he badmouths those who are skeptical about the "academic consensus of superstrings".

Motl is annoyed by this footnote, and wants an apology:
7 I do not share Lubos Motl’s extreme views on politics, global warming, and sometimes not even string theory. However, he occasionally has some good physics summaries, including a recent one giving a nice history of the triumphs of unification [26].
So Duff in not only aggressively defending the academic consensus on superstrings, he is defending a supposed academic consensus on other leftist political matters.

Motl is right to be offended by this cheap shot. I cite other blogs all the time, but I don't bother to disavow opinions expressed on those blogs about other subjects. Duff acts as if he might demonstrate allegiance to the dominant paradigms, or else he might lose the respect of his colleagues.

If you think that string theory might have accomplished something, then go ahead and read Duff. It is pitiful. Duff attacks Smolin for what his publisher said, but admits that his own publicist has put out exaggerated press releases.

Peter Woit also slams Duff's article.

Duff defends string theory with silly statements like this:
Yet support for superstrings and M-theory is based on their ability to absorb quantum mechanics and general relativity, to unify them in a mathematically rigorous fashion, and to suggest ways of accommodating and extending the standard models of particle physics and cosmology. No religion does that.
Duff says that critics must be stamped out because they threaten funding, and because of a comparison to how a leftist politician blames vaccine critics.

The argument for superstrings hinges on a flawed historical example:
The job of theoretical physicists is two fold: first, to explain what our experimental colleagues have discovered; and second, to predict phenomena that have not yet been found. The history of scientific discovery shows that progress is achieved using both methods.

Quantum theory, for example, was largely driven by empirical results, whereas Einstein’s general theory of relativity was a product of speculation and thought experiments, as well as advanced mathematics.
But this story is wrong, as I explain in my book. Special relativity was discovered by Lorentz and Poincare based directly on experiments. Poincare was the first to apply the theory to gravity, and used it to partially explain an anomaly in Mercury's orbit. Einstein's main contribution was to extend Poincare's argument. Einstein later denied that he was motivated by such empirical issues, but we know from his letters that he was concerned with Mercury all along.

It is a big myth that Einstein revolutionized physics from speculation, thought, and math, and no empirical results. This myth is always used to justify bogus research programs like string theory.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The qubit payoff

MIT computer scientist Scott Aaronson has a new NY Times essay promoting quantum computers:
Thus, the sole reason to prefer a quantum computer is that the subatomic world obeys different laws of probability than the ones we are used to. In everyday life, it would be silly to speak of a “minus 30 percent chance of rain tomorrow,” much less a “square root of minus 1 percent chance.” However, quantum mechanics is based on numbers called amplitudes, which are closely related to probabilities but can also be negative (in fact, they are complex numbers). ...

But the biggest payoff so far may have been an improvement in the way quantum mechanics itself is taught and understood. Since its beginnings in the 1920s, quantum mechanics has been considered the prototype of an abstruse, complicated theory: something beyond the grasp of all but a few physicists. Today, though, I and others regularly explain its underlying logic to students by focusing on the simplest imaginable system to which that logic applies: the qubits that make up a quantum computer.

Like fusion power, practical quantum computers are a tantalizing possibility that the 21st century may or may not bring — depending on the jagged course not only of science and technology, but of politics and economics. By contrast, as a scientific endeavor that combines many of the deepest questions of physics and computer science, there’s no need to wait for quantum computing: It’s already here.
No, quantum computers are not like fusion power. Fusion has been physically demonstrated in H-bombs, and are only impractical today because of engineering difficulties. I quoted Aaronson below saying “It’s entirely conceivable that quantum computing is impossible for some fundamental reason.”

He brags of factoring 15 in the article, but in the podcast he tells of a recent paper on the Quantum Factorization of 143.

That "biggest payoff" is absurd. That 1920s quantum mechanics was widely understood by 1930. He may think that it helps to explain the theory in terms of qubits, but no one has ever been able to make a true qubit, and quantum mechanics is used to solve problems every day anyway. He says that the central idea is that probabilities can be negative. However I don't think that it is helpful at all to think about negative probabilities. He says that it helps understand how waves interfere, but I don't.

Update: A new paper argues that entanglement is necessary for the quantum computational speedup. Others have disagreed.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

A computer that thinks like the universe

The Boston Globe has a breathless essay about the future of quantum computing:
The creation of the modern computer in the 1940s was a watershed moment in that quest; today’s super-fast computers are still essentially built on that achievement. Now, however, we’re poised to take another leap forward. That leap is the quantum computer?—?a computer built on an atomic scale. Though they’re still mostly theoretical, quantum computers would use individual atoms to do their computations, instead of circuits etched in silicon. Such a computer wouldn’t just be built differently?—?it would also think differently, using the uncertainty of particle physics instead of the rigid on/off circuitry of a modern computer.

For years, excitement about quantum computing has been growing among scientists and tech visionaries. Quantum computers, if they succeed, promise to make a whole new range of problems accessible to computers, from breaking difficult codes to unlocking complicated biological processes now out of reach for even the fastest machines. The hype has, at times, verged on science fiction, and there are still many skeptics who argue that quantum computers might be physically impossible, or at least too technically complicated to work.

In recent years, however, a series of increasingly capable prototypes have brought the future a little closer. And as that future approaches, it is also starting to attract another kind of attention: Quantum computers, some researchers argue, will help us think differently about what we can and can’t know, and forge a new understanding of how the world of logic and information connects to the material one. Quantum computing, says Seth Lloyd, a researcher at MIT, might “allow us to understand the universe in its own language” — a prospect that has energized philosophers as well as scientists. ...

That’s the dream, at least. The rise of quantum computing theory has been accompanied by a vigorous debate about whether it can work at all. It may never be technically feasible to build the computers at a large scale. Some also think that the quantum approach to computing is, in some basic sense, getting physics wrong. As Scott Aaronson, a computational complexity theorist at MIT, has written, “It’s entirely conceivable that quantum computing is impossible for some fundamental reason.”
At least the essay admits that the whole thing may be impossible.

I think that quantum computing will eventually be understood to be impossible, just as perpetual motion machines are contrary to the laws of physics. So how has anyone made progress?

There are people who also claim to be making progress towards a perpetual motion machine. They increase the efficiency of some device, in the hope that they will eventually exceed 100%. They never do, of course, and their progress is an illusion.