Exposing PseudoAstronomy

December 12, 2012

Being Pedantic Over Laser Colors on Law & Order: SVU


Introduction

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.

Setup

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.

Good Premise

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 …

Law & Order: SVU -- Laser Colors Mistake

Law & Order: SVU — Laser Colors Mistake


Bad Science

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.

Final Thoughts

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.

August 5, 2011

With Relativity and Quantum Mechanics, Is Newtonian Mechanics Irrelevant?


Introduction

I listen to a lot of paranormal and anti-science material. I do it to keep up with what “the other side” thinks and does. And get blog ideas. One such is the radio show / podcast is entitled “Dreamland” which “takes you to the edge of reality.” Or just past it altogether.

The show is run by Whitley Streiber with occasional guest hosts Anne Streiber (his wife), Jim Marrs (a huge conspiracy nut perhaps best known for his “work” on the JFK assassination), Marla Frees, and sometimes others.

Enough background — this post is about a side comment made by the Mrs. Streiber on the just-out Dreamland episode, “The God Theory.” In actuality, I had little issue with the bulk of the episode, it’s really Mrs. Streiber’s remark early on that got me and is the subject of this post. It also delves a bit into the nature of science.

The Remark

This statement starts around 1 min 35 sec into the episode.

Mrs. Streiber: “I know a tiny bit about quantum physics. I have a layman’s understanding of it which we’re all going to have to have eventually because the type of science most of us were taught in school – Newtonian – is not relevant anymore, it’s not the way the world works.”

Epsilon

I heard a talk given by the “Bad Astronomer,” Phil Plait, a few months ago, entitled something along the lines of, “The Final Epsilon.” Epsilon, actually epsilon (lower-case), is the Greek letter that looks like ε. In physics and math, ε is used to mean “a very little bit.” For example, I wrote a recipe that calls for 1 part butter, 4+ε parts peanut butter, and 8-ε parts powdered sugar. In other words, it needs a little bit more than 4 parts peanut butter, and a little less than 8 parts powdered sugar.

Dr. Plait’s thesis was effectively, in skepticism, what is our “final ε?” In science, we can never prove anything 100%. We can never disprove something 100%. Similarly, in modern scientific skepticism, we can never disprove someone’s claim 100%. Despite every debunked alleged psychic, we can never prove 100% that psychic powers are not possible.

The discussion during Dr. Plait’s talk was, though, at what point do we say for all practical purposes we have disproved something? After debunking dozens upon dozens of astrologers and their claims and their methods, even though scientifically I can’t say astrology is 100% Taurus (see what I did there?), I could say it’s 99.9999% bull. And if I’m so close, just 0.0001% away from absolute Truth, am I willing – for all practical purposes – to say that that is my ε and I have effectively proven it to be false?

Tying These Two Together

Now you might be thinking, “Gee, that’s fascinating and I love me some good calculus, but what does this have to do with whether Newton is okay or if I have to learn QM?” I’m glad you asked.

Another point that Phil mentioned in his talk is that the concept of the “final ε” is just as applicable to how we view the world through physics. Newton’s Law of Gravity works in our every-day world. It very accurately describes what will happen if I drop a screaming baby who won’t stop screaming in the middle of the night in the apartment above me bowling ball off a tall building. It very accurately describes the motion of the moon around Earth and through our sky. We use Newton’s laws to figure these things out and how a rocket will fly.

But Newton’s Law of Gravity is wrong to some extent. Einstein’s Relativity corrects that very small error – an error that is only measurable with incredibly accurate instruments and/or when around very massive objects. But that is not our everyday world.

In gravity, Einstein was Newton’s ε. And likely, in the future, someone else will be Einstein’s ε. That’s the nature of science. It progresses as we learn more and more about the universe around us and of which we are a part.

That brings me back to Mrs. Streiber’s remark, which by now you have hopefully figured out why I took issue with it. Yes, Quantum Mechanics provides a more accurate model of the world. And if you wanted to and had supercomputers many orders of magnitude more powerful than today’s best, you could describe a common every-day object as an ensemble of wave equations (seeing as it takes weeks to figure out how to derive even helium – an atom with two protons – in QM class in college, this is not a trivial problem!).

But, if you do that, you will find that beyond all meaningful measurements, classical physics comes up with the same answer. Yes, quantum mechanics is necessary to describe some things in physics, such as the energy spectrum produced by stars, or the photoelectric effect. But it is not used to figure out how to drive a car from home to work, why a volcano erupts, or why a pen can lay ink down on paper.

Final Thoughts

No, Mrs. Streiber, Newtonian mechanics is still relevant and for most practical purposes it is the way the world works. The ε in Newtonian physics is not as large as you think.

December 22, 2010

ESP/Psi Effects Are Faster than the Speed of Light?


Introduction

First, this is going to be a short post – more of a musing. Many times when listening to or reading material put out by the “alternative researchers,” I will come across the claim of a psi experiment that seems to defy the universal speed limits of light. Could this be possible?

Speed Limits

Anyone older than 5 years living in a place with roads is familiar with the concept of a “speed limit.” You’re not supposed to go faster than it. If you do and you are caught by law enforcement, you can be fined or incur more severe consequences. But it’s more of a, “You’re not supposed to go faster than this” rather than, “It is not physically possible for you to go faster than this.” If it were the latter, then no one would get speeding tickets because their vehicle, by definition, could not exceed the speed limit.

Such is one of the key concepts behind Special Relativity: There is a “cosmic” speed limit where one of the physical laws of the universe are that nothing can exceed the speed of light in a given medium. In “empty” space, this is roughly 300,000,000 meters per second (or 186,000 miles per second as it is more commonly expressed for those who don’t use metric). The purpose of this post is not to get into the finer points nor evidences for Special Relativity, so suffice to say for the moment that it is a theory in the scientific sense — it has withstood every experimental test.

The one possible exception is the idea of “quantum entanglement,” where if two particles (as in not people, people are not made of one single atom or sub-atomic particle) are entangled, and one’s state is changed, the other will change instantaneously, faster than Special Relativity would seem to allow. This is part of the reason why relativity breaks down at quantum scales, while quantum mechanics breaks down at relativistic scales, and why unifying the two is one of the great goals of physics today.

Anyway …

Size of Earth

Earth is about 6378 km in radius. Its circumference around the equator is 40,075 km (24,902 miles). My point here is that 40,075 km < 300,000,000 m (24,902 miles < 186,000 miles).

In fact, light can go around the entire planet about 7.5 times in a single second. This is one of the few things I actually remember from watching a video in 3rd grade.

Claims

The psi claim will often go along the lines of this example I just heard on an old 2006 Coast to Coast AM episode: “A mother and child are separated by a vast distance, about 100 km apart, and the child is induced with pain by pricking them with a pin repeatedly. Amazingly, the mother, who is hooked up to an EEG, shows a response to the child’s pain faster than the speed of light would allow!!”

Let’s see … 100 km apart, and light travels at 300,000 km per second. So it took light 0.33 milliseconds (0.00033 seconds) to go from the child to the mother — and that’s assuming that we’re talking about some form of light that can travel through buildings. And let’s actually assume that we are talking about something that really could break this speed limit imposed by Special Relativity.

In order for this claim to be true, the following conditions must have been met:

  1. The person or machine pricking the child must be timed to sub-millisecond accuracy, preferably microseconds, but at least on the order of 100 microseconds.
  2. The mother’s EEG must also have resolution on the order of 100 microseconds. Based on this article, the best EEGs have resolutions 10x worse.
  3. The clocks at the two locations must also be synced and have resolutions better than on the order of 100 microseconds.

What’s the likelihood of all these conditions being met? And then, what is the likelihood that there was not an experimental error, as opposed to overturning other very precise timing experiments that have been done that verify Special Relativity?

Final Thoughts

When listening to shows and reading articles where people talk about ESP/psi research, this claim crops of fairly frequently without any real justification nor details into how the experiment was done and the actual controls on the timing. People do not seem to have a concept for how quickly light really travels, for they seem to ignore that these experiments would require the effect to be timed down to the microsecond across significant Earth distances. If you’re talking about a similar experiment done in the same building (say, 100 m instead of 100 km), then you would need timing resolutions down to the nanosecond.

When you hear these claims, they may sound interesting, but be skeptical and search further to see if – for lack of a better way of putting it – the person knows what they’re talking about. And in many cases, find out if the alleged experiment even took place.

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