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Uncertain Principles

Physics, Politics, Pop Culture

Tuesday, May 25, 2004

Continued Employment Is Good

I had a meeting this morning with the Dean of the Faculty, who informed me that I do, in fact, have a job for next fall. I've passed my third-year reappointment review, the first step in the tenure process.

Nothing surprising, but a huge relief nonetheless.

I also received specific instructions to not do anything that would compromise my research, and specifically not to do any more committee service. In keeping with those instructions, I'm off to a research conference for the rest of the week-- all the cool kids are going to Tucson this week. The really cool kids will be... well probably not here, but I can dream.

(I'd offer to do live DAMOP blogging, but, really, who wants to see that?)

Posted at 10:20 AM | link | follow-ups | 10 comments

Drink Deep, or Taste Not

I went to a debate on campus last night, on the topic "Does God Exist?", featuring the relentlessly self-promoting Michael Shermer, of Skeptic Society fame. Shermer was debating Doug Geivett, who I had never heard of before this, but who did score points by not flogging his own books.

I went to this expecting to be annoyed, but was surprised in the end. It's not that I wasn't annoyed, it's just that the manner of annoyance was different than I expected. There was some predicatable annoyance-- Geivett trotted out arguments that date back at least to Aquinas as if they were new, and said some remarkably daft things about Christianity-- but what was surprising was that both men attempted to cite science in support of their arguments, and both of them made an utter hash of it.

Geivett opened the debate, and gave as one of his evidences for the existence of God the fact that the Universe had a beginning. It's an argument with a venerable history, and he backed it up (initially) with a not-too-garbled description of Big Bang cosmology. He went completely off the rails, though, when he started talking about the "fine tuning" of the Universe in order to support life, and described how this required that matter exploding outward from the Big Bang had to be given just the right amount of kinetic energy. Um, no. It went downhill from there.

(He did use the fairly novel tactic of claiming that the resurrection of Jesus is a good proof of God's existence, saying that Christianity is unique among religions in making claims that are historically verifiable, at least in principle. That last qualifier's a doozy, though, as his main evidence is Gospel accounts of the empty tomb, and so on.

(I might buy the "verifiable" claim if he were able to show evidence of the empty tomb from, well, anyone without an axe to grind. A Roman record book noting the mysterious absence of a late Jewish revolutionary, or some such. But the claim that this is unique to Christianity is just asinine-- Buddhists, Jews, Muslims, and Mormons, off the top of my head, could all make similar claims.)

Shermer started off in a slightly more promising manner, claiming the mantle of Science for his arguments. He very quickly started to lose it, though, talking about the "quantum mechanical decay of beta particles." Beta particles, being electrons, have this maddening tendency to, well, not decay. Other kinds of particles undergo beta decay, in which they emit beta particles, but beta particles do not decay.

And pretty much all of his scientific arguments suffered a similar garbling. He ran through a catalogue of cosmological theories, and his quick descriptions of them were just... off. It's like he's learned all his physics from the free subscription he gets for writing a column in Scientific American.

Honestly, it was like watching Gregg Easterbrook debate Gregg Easterbrook...

And then the question-and-answer period started. With a vengeance, as the first "questioner" got up and gave a little dissertation on how the Bible mentions the idea of an expanding Universe, and how some parameter-- the mass density, I think-- is constrained to one part in 10120. A remarkable claim, that, as there are only supposed to be something like 1080 protons in the Universe, a fact which he also managed to drag in.

And lest it be thought that only the pro-God people were idiots, the second questioner basically rattled off the plot of The DaVinci Code as if it were fact, and used it to question the accuracy of the Bible. Both speakers managed to be diplomatic in pointing out that Dan Brown's book is a novel, but only just.

Alexander Pope was right.

Posted at 9:50 AM | link | follow-ups | 2 comments

Monday, May 24, 2004

No Escape

As noted by Kate (I can't guarantee that link will work, as LiveJournal is all wonky at the moment), we rented The Triplets of Belleville this weekend, and watched it Saturday night. It's a delightfully odd little movie with basically no dialogue, but wonderful characters-- the dog is just perfect.

I noticed something really strange about the opening shot, though. The film starts off with a grainy black-and-white picture of a theater stage, like they used to use for really old cartoon features, and on the front of the stage, beneath the curtains, is the Einstein field equation, or a version thereof:

Rμν - (1/2) gμν R = - 8 π G Tμν

There's just no escaping physics, even in one of the oddest cartoons on record...

Posted at 8:52 AM | link | follow-ups | no comments

Close Enough Answers

Here are the actual songs from the previous mix tape post. This one was recorded during the summer between my graduation from Williams and the start of grad school, and you can sort of tell. I had moved down to DC to work at NIST for the summer, and I hadn't brought all my gear down yet, so it was dubbed on a cheap boom box (the levels fluctuate from one song to another), and using a limited selection of CD's (not even all the ones I had then, and a tiny fraction of the collection I have now). I needed something to listen to while driving back and forth between Gaithersburg and College Park to look for housing, though, and I was fairly happy with the tape, so I kept it.

Someday, in the not-too-distant future, I'm going to have to give up on the casette tape technology, and move all these mixes over to CD's or MP3's, or whatever. That'll be a big hassle, when it happens, so I'm sticking with tape hiss for the moment...

Side One:

Side Two:

Posted at 8:44 AM | link | follow-ups | 2 comments

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