This page will look much nicer in a browser that supports CSS, or with CSS turned on.

Uncertain Principles

Physics, Politics, Pop Culture

Saturday, August 13, 2005

As Far From String Theory As Possible

Enough of this serious stuff. Instead, I give you Ingmar Bergman's Hazardous Dukes:

UNCLE JESSE: Why must I live? Life is a meaningless parade of pain, and loneliness, and revenuers.

(Bo and Luke stare; close-up of ticking clock)

LUKE: You must live to see the outlaw dirt sprints at Hazzard County Speedway Saturday night. There is a $2000 prize, and Bo and I have entered the General Sundqvist.

(Via a mailing list.)

Also, Fafblog rules:

Now we know God exists, it's time for deep space God exploration! Intelligent Designostronomers have located him in orbit around the moon and believe the first Godstonauts could make a manned God landing as early as 2012. God's surface is rich in deposits of wine and communion wafers which could support the beginnings of a God colony, where advanced mining techniques could extract the omnipotence America could use to supply its energy needs for the next coupla years! The sky's the limit! Til we hit God. Then God's the limit.

But you knew that.

Posted at 8:23 AM | link | follow-ups | 3 comments

Friday, August 12, 2005

What's the Matter with Science Blogging?

In the recent String Theory comment threads, I was mildly surprised that I got just as much flack for a comment on science blogging as I did for suggesting that string theorists have a bad attitude. I let it die in that comment thread, but made a mental note to come back to the topic later.

Via PZ Myers, though, I see there's a post at Living the Scientific Life that says most of what I would want to say. It's mostly a summary of an article in The Scientist, but the bit at the end where the author appends her own opinion is excellent:

Secko's points that I summarized here are all fine and good, but the article completely missed what is in my opinion the most compelling value of blogs to science and scientists: public outreach and education, particularly for protecting and enhancing scientific curriculum in public schools. Considering that there is a "science versus religion in classrooms" argument raging at all in this country indicates that the scientific community has thus far failed in their public outreach and education efforts. As I see it, this country is engaged in an internal war that is centered around science and scientific education; it is a battle for the minds of the public. On one side is a small but militant group of christian fundamentalists who noisily portray science, particularly evolution, as a fallacious way of perceiving how the world functions. On the other side are scientists and secular humanists who refuse to allow religion to be taught under the guise of science in the public schools. In the middle are the majority of the American public, who know little or nothing at all about science and who are apparently confused by all the rhetoric. What is needed are more scientist-bloggers who are willing to bridge this gap by presenting a clear and engaging argument to the public regarding the veracity and value of science, especially evolution, to society.

I'd even go a little farther than that, and say that a big part of the problem we have is that science is seen as something remote and difficult, and simply beyond the abilities of ordinary people. That's the attitude that enables both "Intelligent Design" and the corporate attacks on climate science-- the point of these efforts is not so much to shift the scientific consensus as to throw up enough of a smoke screen that the general public will decide that the whole business is simply too confusing, and tune out.

A basic understanding of science and how it works ought to be within the reach of every person. To the degree that people feel science is hopelessly beyond them, that's a failure on our part, as scientists. And that failure leads directly to things like the educational debacle in Kansas.

What we need is not just an outreach effort to address the specific sciences currently under attack but a more general effort to help people realize that science is not just something for freaks and geeks. Not only do we need to explain science in terms that laypeople can understand, but I think we also need to do some things to humanize scientists-- to make it clear that we're regular people, and not weird eggheads from Planet Brainiac.

I don't think that blogs talking in detail about the compactification of N-dimensional Calabi-Yau whatsis really help that cause. Or, to quote a comment over at Living the Scientific Life, "If a science blog is just scientists talking to scientists, it's not going to do much to win the evolution/ID 'debate.'"

It's not just a need for more pop-science explanations, either. I think slice-of-life stuff helps, too. The links over on the left are mostly political blogs of one sort or another, but probably my three favorite sites at the moment are In the Pipeline, Learning Curves, and The Little Professor. They're not all that similar in detail, but what I like about them is that they go a long way toward answering the question "What do those people do, anyway?" for each of their respective fields.

When Derek Lowe gets to talking about the details of chemical processes or stock transactions, I don't follow it all that well, but reading his blog for the past several years has given me a much clearer idea of what it is that professional chemists do, and has given me more respect for the profession. And back in the day, the Invisible Adjunct probably did more to raise my opinion of humanities scholarship than anything else in the wake of the Sokal hoax-- not so much through anything she said about her studies as such, but because her writing about her life and work made it clear that she and her colleagues were smart people working very hard on things that they felt had some value. It made me take another, more respectful, look at what my colleagues on the other side of campus do.

If you want to see the main advantage of blogging as providing a forum for experts to talk informally with other experts, whether in political punditry or in science, well, that's your prerogative. Personally, though, I think that sort of blogging is missing the real power of the medium, and missing a real opportunity to do some good with the general public.

Posted at 1:28 PM | link | follow-ups | 7 comments

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Thomas Kuhn Would Have a Field Day

I was a junior in college when the first results from COBE were released, showing anisotropy in the cosmic microwave background radiation. At the time, I was taking a class that might well have been titled "Cosmology for Complete Idiots," taught by a visiting professor from Poland.

The first class day after the COBE data were made public, he practically danced into the room and announced that he was scrapping the day's lecture. Instead, he delivered an impromptu seminar on the COBE data. The measured anisotropies were smaller than people would've liked to see (as I understand it), and the signal-to-noise ratio was pretty close to 1, but he was so happy to have data-- any data-- that he was practically bouncing off the ceiling while he talked.

That's always stuck with me as one of the best examples of the excitement of doing scientific research.

I was reminded of Prof. D's happy dance by the recent discussion here and elsewhere of the preliminary Eot-Wash results on gravity at short length scales. In a comment, Jacques Distler calls them "highly likely to go away," and other comments I've seen have piled on the caveats about electrostatics and Casimir forces and length scales. The contrast seems striking.

Now, the two situations are not perfectly analogous. The COBE data were ready-for-publication results, vetted by a large committee of scientists. Meanwhile, the Eot-Wash results are the product of a single research group, and have yet to see an official release for peer review. Still, hints keep popping up that they think they're seeing something real, and they've got a solid reputation in the community. And it's not like NASA committees are scientifically infallible-- life on Mars, anyone?

Yeah, the final Washington results, whenever they are released, will need to be confirmed by further experiments, which might take years. But those first COBE pictures weren't all that great, either, and it was three or four years before another good dataset became available, and a decade or so before WMAP. That didn't do much to dampen the excitement in astronomical circles, at least from my perspective as a lowly undergraduate.

Of course, the most important factor in the differing reactions may be more personal. My professor didn't have a big stake in any particular model of CMB fluctuations, so he was just happy to see some data. The skepticism about the Washington result has mostly come from people who have a great deal invested in theories that will have a very hard time accommodating the results (if they're the same as the initial reports).

A fairer comparison might be to the first experiment I was involved with in grad school (I didn't rate authorship, but I did get thanked in the Acknowledgements). We measured the lifetime of a long-lived state in xenon, and found a result that was a factor of two smaller than the theoretical value. The theorist who had done the calculations was local, and insisted that we must've done something wrong, until another group came along with measurements of two other lifetimes that were also shorter than he expected. Only after that did he start looking for higher-order corrections to bring the theory back in line with experiment.

(I'm not sure if that discrepancy has ever been resolved. One of the other measurements has been improved in the last few years, and has gotten even shorter, so I'm sure he's not happy...)

It frequently takes more than one ugly fact to slay a beautiful theory. Personally, I'm temperamentally on the side of the ugly facts-- I like the excitement of seeing a model collapse, and I think you learn a lot more when you have to scramble to construct a new theory than when you just plug new facts into the holes waiting for them. I've done my share of fighting for untenable models in the face of contradictory data, though, and it can be awfully hard to let go.

Posted at 7:07 AM | link | follow-ups | 7 comments

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Too Much Making Light

Chris Mooney has a post complaining about NPR's evolution debate which will pit George Gilder against Richard Dawkins. I don't entirely agree with his comments, but that's nothing new, and not what I want to mention here.

Mooney wrote:

On the other hand, I expect Dawkins will absolutely disembowel Gilder on an intellectual level, so at least that should be good sport.

On reading that, my first thought was "That's a funny typo." It took me a second to remember that "disemvowel" is the neologism, here...

It also makes me wonder what "ntllgnt Dsgn s vld scntfc thr" would sound like on radio.

Posted at 8:58 AM | link | follow-ups | 4 comments

Netflix Notes

Kate's parents got me a Netflix subscription as a birthday present, and I've been using it for a little more than a month, now, so it's probably worth some comments.

We had never really considered signing up for Netflix ourselves, because we just don't rent that many movies. And when we do rent things, we've occasionally returned them without ever getting around to watching them (usually when we picked up a second or third movie in some "rent one, get one" deal). We're both busy enough that it's hard to really commit to two or three hours of watching a specific movie, even when we can both agree that we'd like to see something. I didn't see that really changing with Netflix.

What I hadn't considered, though, is that Netflix also offers a large selection of TV shows on DVD, and that's a lot easier to deal with. One episode of an hour-long tv drama is only about forty-five minutes on DVD, and that's about the amount of time it takes me to decide that there's nothing worth watching on tv on any given night. Even two episodes is less of a time sink than one regular movie, and it's easier to handle interruptions from the dog or the phone.

To this point, I've only gotten one actual movie from Netflix (Donnie Darko, and just what the hell was that, anyway?), but we've gone through a bunch of shorter-format things: the first two seasons of Homicide: Life on the Street, three discs worth of the second season of The Sopranos (I saw the first season on HBO, back in New Haven), and three discs worth of Full Metal Alchemist (which Kate has been analyzing in detail one, two, three). That's way more DVD's than I would've rented from Blockbuster over that span, and it allows me to pretend I'm living in a magical age in which tv doesn't suck.

There are a few snags, of course. I'm all about instant gratification, and the three-day turnaround for new Netflix discs sometimes makes me twitchy. If I throw a finished disc into the mail on Monday or Tuesday, I'll have a new one by the weekend, but I'm running out of things to watch by Wednesday or Thursday. I should really look into what it will cost to upgrade to having more discs out at once (we currently only get three), which would alleviate that problem somewhat. It doesn't help with the "I want to see that now" problem when people recommend movies, but I suppose there's nothing stopping me from renting movies from Blockbuster or Time Warner Cable.

It's also not clear to me whether this will continue to be useful when September rolls around, with the one-two combination of a new academic term and watchable sports on tv. I may end up scaling back or suspending the subscription during basketball season... There's also the question of what will happen when I exhaust the finite supply of tv shows I like enough to see on DVD, but that's a long way off yet.

On the whole, though, I've been happy enough with the service that I'll pay to keep it going when the gift subscription runs out.

Posted at 7:48 AM | link | follow-ups | 8 comments

Monday, August 08, 2005

Prohibited Activities, According to My iPod

Don't Ask For The Water
Don't Ask Me
Don't Ask Me Why
Don't Be Sad
Don't Be Shy
Don't Be That Way
Don't Bug Me When I'm Working
Don't Change Your Plans
Don't Come Around Here No More
Don't Come Close
Don't Come Home Too Soon
Don't Come Running
Don't Cry
Don't Do Me Like That
Don't Drink the Water
Don't Fade On Me
Don't Fear The Reaper
Don't Fight It
Don't Fuck Me Up (With Peace And Love)
Don't Give Up
Don't Give Up On Me
Don't Go
Don't Go Away
Don't Go Away Mad
Don't Knock My Love (Part 1)
Don't Leave Me
Don't Leave Me
Don't Leave Me Now
Don't Let Go
Don't Let Me Be Lonely Tonight
Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood
Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood
Don't Let Me Explode
Don't Let The Green Grass Fool You
Don't Let The World Get In Your Way
Don't Let Us Get Sick
Don't Look Back
Don't Look Back in Anger
Don't Make Me Wait Too Long
Don't Mess With Bill
Don't Pass Me By
Don't Pull Your Love
Don't Say Nothing
Don't Speak
Don't Stand So Close To Me
Don't Steal Our Sun
Don't Stop Me Now
Don't Stop Now
Don't Talk
Don't Tell Your Mother
Don't Think About Her When You're Trying To Drive
Don't Think Twice, It's All Right
Don't Throw Your Love On Me So Strong
Don't Try To Explain
Don't Worry About The Government

Posted at 8:00 AM | link | follow-ups | 16 comments

Sunday, August 07, 2005

Now That's a Noble Cause

While I'm giving credit for good deeds, Sisyphus Shurgged reports on a way to spit in the eye of Fred "God Hates Fags" Phelps (via Off the Kuff):

Phelps is highly outspoken against homosexuality. He believes God is killing America's soldiers because "gays are taking over the country." However, one woman says a group in Michigan has already dealt with the protesting pastor.

"He protested their bar, and they decided instead of counter-acting and counter-protesting him with signs, they decided to do a fundraiser," said Melissa Yoannon, the local fundraiser coordinator.

All these ladies are asking for is a nickel, dime or quarter pledge per minute that Phelps protests Taylor's funeral.

Yoannon asked, "I thought if we could do this and get some money for Sgt. Taylor's wife, to make up for this man putting such a stain on the last peaceful moment she has with him, why not?"

Click the link above for contact information. People like Phelps are a blight on the genome, so any project that will both do a little good and irk Fred Phelps is worth supporting.

Posted at 7:55 PM | link | follow-ups | 1 comment


Having bitched about string theorists refusing to address interesting questions from the laity, I feel obliged to give props to Brad DeLong for addressing some deep economic questions in response to a query from a non-economist. He should also get credit for hosting some of the best physics discussion on the Internets.

Now if only I could figure out why Bloglines only registers his new posts on a bi-weekly basis. Why does Bloglines hate America?

Posted at 7:38 PM | link | follow-ups | 9 comments

ΔxΔp ≥ h / 4 π

My stuff
What's with the name?
Who is this clown?
Does he know what he's talking about?
Archived Posts
Index of Physics Posts
RSS, version 0.91
The Library of Babel
Japan Stories

Δ E Δ t ≥ h / 4 π

Other People's Stuff

AKMA's Random Thoughts
Arcane Gazebo
Arts and Letters Daily
Boing Boing
Chronicles of Dr. Crazy
Confessions of a Community College Dean
Cosmic Variance
Crooked Timber
Brad DeLong
Diary de la Vex
Drink at Work
Easily Distracted
Electron Blue
John Fleck
Grim Amusements
David Harris's Science and Literature Hellblazer
In the Pipeline
Invisible Adjunct
Izzle Pfaff
Knowing and Doing
The Last Nail
Learning Curves
The Little Professor
Making Light
Malice Aforethought
Chris C. Mooney
Musical Perceptions
My Heart's in Accra
Michael Nielsen
Not Even Wrong
Notional Slurry
Off the Kuff
One Man's Opinion
Orange Quark
The Panda's Thumb
Perverse Access Memory
Political Animal
The Poor Man
Preposterous Universe
Pub Sociology
Quantum Pontiff
Real Climate
The Reality-Based Community
SciTech Daily
Sensei and Sensibility
Talking Points Memo
Through the Looking Glass
Unmistakable Marks
Unqualified Offerings
View From the Corner of the Room
What's New
Whiskey Bar
Wolverine Tom
Word Munger
Yes, YelloCello
Matthew Yglesias

Book Stuff

Book Slut
Neil Gaiman
The Humblest Blog on the Net
Pam Korda
Outside of a Dog
Reading Notes
Seven Things Lately
The Tufted Shoot
Virtual Marginalia
Weasel Words
Woodge's Book Report


ACC Hoops
College Basketball (2.0)
Dave Sez
Hoop Time 3.0
The Mid-Majority
Set Shot
Tuesday Morning Quarterback

Δ N Δ Φ ≥ 1 / 2


75 or Less Album Reviews
Rotten Tomatoes
The Onion A.V. Club

Geek Stuff

Annals of Improbable Research
Astronomy Picture of the Day
Britney Spears's Guide to Semiconductor Physics
The Comic Book Periodic Table
MC Hawking's Crib
The Museum of Unworkable Devices
Myths and Mysteries of Science
The Onion
Physics 2000
Sluggy Freelance
Web Elements
Physics Central (APS)
This Week's Finds in Mathematical Physics

Useful Stuff

Web Design Group

While it is my fervent hope that my employers agree with me about the laws of physics, all opinions expressed here are mine, and mine alone. Don't hold my politics against them.

Weblog posts are copyright 2003 by Chad Orzel, but may be copied and distributed (and linked to) freely, with the correct attribution. But you knew that already.

If you use Internet Explorer, and the text to the right cuts off abruptly at the end of this column, hit "F11" twice, and you should get the rest of it. We apologize for the inconvenience.

Powered by Blogger Pro and BlogKomm.

Steelypips main page.