Episode 64: Quantum Nonsense, has been posted. It’s a combination of some new material and two previous blog posts. The topic is basically an intro to quantum mechanics and a discussion of how it is used and abused by pseudoscientists today. And, I branch away from Coast to Coast for other sources of audio clips! There’s also a puzzler and an addendum to the previous episode.
February 8, 2013
December 12, 2012
This is a quick post about me being a crotchety young man. But, one of the founding ideas of this blog was to point out not only bad astronomy/physics/geology that I see out there on crazy blogs and Coast to Coast, but also what I see in the media, on TV, and in movies.
I’ve been going through and watching old Law & Order: SVU episodes. I enjoy the series and watched it with my mom during part of high school and sometimes when home from college. Now in it’s 14th season, I have a lot of catching up to do.
I was watching season 5 episode 1 last night while doing some other work on the side (you can decide for yourself if that’s an intended or unintended dangling participle). About 31 minutes into the episode, a lab tech makes a big deal about restoring a receipt and the detectives are hoping it can lead them to a woman who had been kidnapped. Only problem is the receipt is saturated with blood and unreadable … under normal lights.
The lab tech makes a big deal about how it’s illegible “to the naked eye, that’s why God invented lasers. Different frequencies reveal different inks.”
This premise is true. In fact, over Thanksgiving, I was back in Ohio visiting with my parents and went to the Cincinnati Museum Center’s special exhibit on the Dead Sea Scrolls. They had a side room on their digital imaging process for documenting the scrolls and, “using technology developed by NASA” (people who don’t think the space program has any practical applications …), they showed how the fragments are all being imaged with 12 different colors of light: seven visible, five IR. Here’s the video that I had seen on it, and here’s a shorter version that just shows one scroll under the different wavelengths.
What the video pointed out is that several letters were not visible due to burns or dirt. But, under different wavelengths of light, the dirt becomes transparent while the ink remains opaque and you can read them.
This is exactly why astronomers use different wavelengths of light to study different things. Anyway …
In what was obviously done for visual interest for television, the lab tech then goes through and supposedly illuminates the receipt under three different laser colors to try to bring out text. First, she says she’s using 400 nm, which shows up as bright blue, tinging on violet. Then 500 nm, which shows up as a ruddy orange. Finally, 600 nm, which is a brilliant green and they can read it and go and find the girl.
Anyone shaking their head right now?
If not, let me explain the first issue: Those colors are wrong for those wavelengths. I should know — I just purchased four lasers, one each at 405 nm, 460 nm, 532 nm, and 650 nm. The colors for those are deep purple, bluish-violet, green, and deep red.
As in, if those wavelengths she stated were the actual colors, 400 nm would have been a very deep purple, bordering on invisibility to the human eye (edge of human vision is somewhere around 380-400 nm). 500 nm should have been a turquoise blue-green. 600 nm would have been a yellow bordering on red (yellow sodium lights in parking lots are at 589 nm).
A second problem is that lasers are not made at those wavelengths. I guess it’s theoretically possible, and there might be some very rare laser of which I’m not aware, and while there are a large variety of lasers out there, 400, 500, and 600 nm are not among them.
My third of three problems with this is that lasers generally make a dot. You can have spreaders and put in gratings and whatever to make broader patterns, but generally speaking, they’re dots. This was basically like a broad light. What she showed, and what should have been used, and what she should have simply said, are that she was using a diode. Speaking as someone who’s been kept awake by the diode power lights on a computer case, diodes create a broad illumination, not a tiny point of light.
But I guess lasers sound cooler.
Yes, pedantic, nit-picking, etc. Does this have any bearing on broader society? Probably not.
But, then again, there are two issues here. One is that she was simply wrong. Portraying bad science or getting the science wrong is … wrong. It shouldn’t have happened.
The second issue is that someone might pick up on this and think that’s the way things work — that those are the colors that correspond with those wavelengths. And then it could take a long time for them to unlearn it. For example, I had an 8th grade science teacher who claimed a kilometer was longer than a mile (among other things). Three years later, I was in AP music theory class and, as usual, we were doing nothing, so I was complaining with a senior about incompetent teachers at our school. And I brought up the 8th grade teacher and units of length. And she exclaimed that because she had been taught that, too, by the guy the year before I had him, it screwed her up for two whole years. It took 10th grade chemistry and a sit-down with the chemistry teacher before she got everything straightened out such that she now knows a centimeter is shorter than an inch.
Perhaps an extreme example, perhaps an example that further illustrates the tiny effect that this doesn’t have, but it’s stuck in my mind.
And there are a lot less useful blog posts out there, and I’m tired about hearing about 12/12/12 and 12/21/12.
P.S. If I had to guess, I’d say that the “400 nm” was around 470, the “500 nm” around 600 or so, and the “600 nm” right on that classic green laser color of 532 nm.
November 12, 2012
Just a quick post for today (busy busy here as usual, stuff should settle down a bit come December …). What would it be like to take an elevator trip through Earth from one side to the other?
Apparently, in the remake of the hilariously (poor science-)fiction movie Total Recall, the remake which I have not seen, there is a plot point of taking an elevator trip through Earth’s center from one side of the other. Apparently this is the only way to safely travel from one city to the other … I hope it’s not just some stupid thing that seems “cool” that serves no other purpose than to spend a budget on special effects.
Anyway, I came across a Wired article today where a physicist spends great detail explaining what would it actually be like to travel through Earth’s center. As with all great investigations when we have too much time on our hands, he even does numerical simulations, though it looks like he graphed in Excel … but I won’t hold it against him.
He shows several interesting things, including that the elevator would reach speeds no slower than 8 km/sec (around 5-6 miles/second). That’s really really fast. If he includes the higher density of Earth’s core, then you reach speeds up to 50% faster than that, even.
He also addresses the concept of weightlessness. This is something that all physics majors learn about in detail in Classical Mechanics classes (Physics I on steroids after your first and usually second year). But, I’ve always found it somewhat difficult to easily convey why, without drawing diagrams of circles and triangles, you would be weightless if you were stationary at Earth’s center. He goes through that in agonizing detail before letting you know that, actually, in the scenario in this version of Total Recall, you’d be weightless the whole time because you’re in free fall.
So, as I said, quick post for today, head over to Wired if you have a few minutes to reach about the physics of taking an elevator trip through the Center of the Earth.
August 2, 2012
July 7, 2012
If you were living in a box this past week, you may not have heard the announcement by CERN that the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) over in Europe has found evidence with 99.9999042% certainty of the long-theorized (since the 1960s) Higgs Boson. Big news in particle physics, probably the biggest news in science all week, if not month, possibly year.
Unfortunately for those of us who deal with pseudoscience, the Higgs Boson is popularly known as the “God Particle” — especially in the media. Which of course means that the young-Earth creationists have to comment on it.
Okay, I’m going to assume here that if you’re reading this blog, you already know the jist of what’s going on. So I’m not going to go into a lengthy background, rather I’m just going to summarize:
- The Standard Model of Particle Physics explains a lot but we don’t really know what “gives” particles any sort of mass. We know stuff has mass — I’m reminded of that every morning when I attempt to get out of bed.
- The Higgs field was theorized in the 1960s to be a field that particles interact with that give them their mass.
- The Higgs field is carried by / transmitted by / etc. the Higgs boson (the boson being a type of fundamental particle. This was predicted by and is a requirement of the Standard Model.
- The Higgs boson was the last fundamental particle that was only in theory and hadn’t been yet observed.
And the results this past week are of the decay products that would be required from the Higgs boson, so by back-tracking those decay particles, they have the discovery of the Higgs.
Standard Model predictions found to be accurate, Higgs boson found, therefore Higgs field confirmed and we know why things have mass.
Since mass is a fundamental property of matter, and the Higgs field is commonly said to “give” particles mass (when it’s really a quantum interaction between the pervasive field and the particles), it has been deemed to be known as “The God Particle.”
That’s really about it.
I suppose a very brief interlude needs to be made to discuss the Comic Sans font. Let’s be frank: It’s a stupid font that most people hate. It is childish. It was designed to be for dialog bubbles in comics (“Comic” in the name). It should never ever ever be used in anything professional.
Do people use it in professional settings? Yes. I’ve seen presentations at conferences that are written in Comic Sans. My friggin’ advisor made our entire poster for a conference in Comic Sans font. I gave him hell for it.
The media presentation at CERN for this discovery this week was done in Comic Sans. They should not have done it in Comic Sans. I don’t think there’s any excuse for this because any press officer worth anything would have told them to change the font. Period.
Does it change the results? No. I’m reminded of when a gay kid came out in his blog and it was all basic early 2000s formatting with plain background, plain text, nothing else. All his friends on Facebook gave him hell not for coming out, but for the 1990s HTML coding he used to do it. So let’s get beyond the stupid font the CERN folks used.
As most would probably expect for a particle physics news item, many people in the so-called “mainstream media” invented all sorts of things that the “God Particle” could do, though most didn’t. Many things could be taken out of context to lead people to false conclusions about what the Higgs boson “does,” and they’re ripe for quote mining.
And as we would expect, with something called the “God Particle,” every single creationist outlet I read had some reaction to the announcement this week.
In general, though, I was okay with what they wrote (apart from the whole, “True knowledge can only come from a literal reading of God’s Word!” part). The Institute for Creation Research, Answers in Genesis, and Creation Ministries International all had articles that were basically saying the same thing: (1) Don’t believe the hype that with this discovery we now know all the deepest darkest mysteries of the universe, (2) “God Particle” is a misleading name, (3) it doesn’t have anything to do with the origins of the universe, (4) Praise
In my own opinion, the reporting by the young-Earth creationists on this matter is not bad, nor is it very distorted at all. They’re really just trying to reassure their followers that this discovery (which they can’t dismiss) in no way affects their faith in their god. And I’m okay with that.
June 8, 2012
For the first regular non-podcast-announcement post in awhile*, I just came across this Wired.com article: “ It’s Official: Neutrinos Can’t Beat Speed of Light.” While I doubt this will get much play in most main media outlets, I’m sure it will be talked quite a lot about on science blogs and podcasts. Instead of talking about the results (beyond summarizing them), I’m going to talk about the process here and how, in my opinion, the scientists involved did NOT do the wrong thing.
Pons and Fleischmann and Science by Press Release
Pons’ and Fleischmann’s names will forever live in infamy for doing science by press release. In 1989, they held a press conference where they claimed they had succeeded in cold fusion (fusion at temperatures below millions of degrees).
They were wrong. Every single experiment after them that tried to duplicate their work failed. Disgraced but indignant, both moved to France and took £12 million of Toyota’s money with no results after 10 years. Fleischmann now lives in England and Pons gave up US citizenship and is still living in France.
Both are still championed by the “alternative energy” community for having succeeded in cold fusion but being held back and put down by The Powers that Be (as in alternative medicine, as in, not real).
CERN’s Announcement of Faster-than-Light Neutrinos
Part of Einstein’s momentous work in the early 1920s was to propose that nothing can travel faster than light. Every experiment ever done since then has eventually shown that this is correct, as far as we can tell.
In 1987, a supernova happened in a neighboring dwarf galaxy (as seen from Earth). The neutrino burst arrived a few hours before the visible light counter-part, exactly in line with theory (that neutrinos travel slower than light, but they are unimpeded by the atmosphere of the dying star which is why the light was delayed).
In 2011, scientists at CERN announced the results of numerous runs of the same experiment that showed that neutrinos somehow seemed to travel faster than light. The difference in timing was 60 nanoseconds (a nanosecond is 0.000000001 seconds). But, their results were consistent over the course of 15,000 repetitions.
They had checked everything they could think of and debated the results within the team. Finally, they released a paper and held a press conference about the paper wherein they stated (paraphrased): “These are our results. We know this violates established physics, but we have tried everything we can think of to figure out where we might have made a mistake. Please help us and critique our work!”
If their results were real, and neutrinos do travel faster than light by the amount they measured, then the neutrinos from the 1987 supernova should have arrived at Earth years before the visible light counterpart. Not hours.
With the decline of dedicated science reporters, science reporting in most media outlets has declined in quality over the past decade. Significantly. Media in general took the sexy headlines of “Einstein Was Wrong” and “Light Speed Limit Broken” and other such things.
What they didn’t report was that this is part of the scientific process. Work needs to be vetted and repeated before it is accepted.
A few months ago (March 2012), it was announced that a possible source of systematic error was found: A loose cable. (Systematic error/uncertainty is something that will always give you the same relative offset in an experiment. This is in contrast to random error where you get literally random sources of error that crop up.)
Because of the very precise timing required in this experiment, a loose cable may seem innocuous, but it was enough to account for the difference.
In the time since March, the experiment has been redone many times and, today (June 8, 2012), CERN research directory Sergio Bertolucci presented results at a conference that shows the neutrinos travel at just under the speed of light.
Pseudoscience Already Grabbed It
Unfortunately, just as pseudoscientists hawking their latest perpetual motion devices still point to Pons and Fleischmann as having succeeded in creating cold fusion, already in the past few months several have latched onto the idea of FTL neutrinos to bolster their own line of beliefs.
I have heard from numerous, different people on some forums I monitor as well as the “venerable” Coast to Coast AM show saying things such as, “ESP exists because CERN scientists have shown that things can travel faster than light!” Or, “UFOs are aliens from other planets and we already know that they can get here faster than light because CERN scientists have shown that things can travel faster than light!”
Do I expect them to retract their claims now that the science has been corrected by the same people who made the claim to begin with? Of course not. But hopefully I’m wrong.
These scientists did not do science by press release, they vetted their work within the team and performed over 15,000 experiments. Even when presenting their work, they still didn’t believe their results and they were calling on the rest of the physics community for help. That was not the route taken by Pons and Fleischmann.
I think that this shows well how science is generally supposed to work when you have an extraordinary claim (Alex Tsakiris …):
- Established physics theory borne out from hundreds or thousands of experiments.
- A single new experiment suggests it’s wrong.
- Experimenters repeat their experiment many times, and search for sources of error that would explain the anomalous result.
- Not finding it, they publish a peer-reviewed paper about the work and ask the broader community for help.
- Many people come in and try to figure out where the latest experiment may have gone wrong.
- Course A: If they find the mistake, they retract the initial claims and the established physics is shown to still hold.
- Coarse 1: If they don’t find the mistake, then an independent experiment must be set up that is designed to measure the same phenomenon and run. If it verifies the new results, then the established theory must be modified. If it doesn’t, then the original experiment remains an interesting anomaly to be explained but does not affect the established theory.
And that’s what happened here.
*Sorry folks, I know that I’ve been lax lately, I have no excuse other than work and other things that have taken priority. This blog is unfortunately not my tip-top priority. And the last three weeks have seen three astronomical events that have generated about 100GB of images I’m trying to finish processing (annular eclipse, lunar eclipse, Venus transit). And I’m behind on work in my day job.
May 19, 2012
Podcast Episode 36 BONUS! – GAPs Young-Earth Creationists Must Believe or Ignore (Geology, Astronomy, Physics)
I ended up giving my talk anon how YECs arrive at their conclusion of a young Earth versus how “secular scientists” do it. This episode has been posted in both audio and video. Hopefully they both work, and hopefully not too many will yell at me for posting a 90 MB video without warning to the RSS feed. The video is MP4 format … that is the general universal format these days, right?
May 2, 2012
This Saturday, May 5 (as in, in 3 days), I’ll be giving a half-hour talk entitled, “GAPs Young-Earth Creationists Must Believe or Ignore (Geology, Astronomy, Physics.” I’ve written a lot about YEC on this blog, so narrowing topics down to be explained well within a half-hour window is a bit difficult.
I’ve already given a talk before where I talked about radiometric dating, Earth’s magnetic field, comets, spiral galaxies, and universal constants. But, these were more targeted mini-topics and didn’t really tell a cohesive story. I’d like to make this talk more a top-down picture hitting large, broad topics that creationists use … rather than the bottom-up “let’s pick a bunch of random topics and discuss them” approach of my previous talk.
I’m having a brain freeze at the moment, so I’m soliciting ideas from you. I think, if nothing else, I do need to tie in the Magical Noah’s Flood that is used to explain fossil layers, craters and water on Mars, Earth’s magnetic field, old radiometric ages, etc. Maybe that could be used as a branching point?
Please feel free to leave some ideas in the comments section!