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 1, 2012
This is Part 1 of two parts, the next to be in the next episode, conveniently, and will discuss what young-Earth creationists say about the topic.
But in this one, I give you a 50-minute interview with geologist Rachael Acks who explains some of the history of radiometric dating, the very basic physics of it, how it works in practice, and some cases of when and why you can’t use the method.
This month begins a four-part series (though it’ll be labeled as two Parts 1 and 2) on age-dating techniques and then the young-Earth response. The first set is radiometric, second set will be craters. It’s a bit of a different thing, so we’ll see how it works out.
Note that because this interview ran longer than I like to make normal episodes, I’m pushing the not-main segments to Episode 39.
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?
October 15, 2011
This is actually a topic I have NEVER addressed in my blog before, in part because it’s a lot of quotes from various people and it’s a pain to transcribe. In this episode, I spend the first half going through some of the actual “science” claims of the hollow Earth, including some of the history. I spend the latter half of the episode discussing four independent, distinct ways that we know Earth is not hollow.
This is also my longest episode so far (other than the live talk). As I state at the beginning of this episode, I don’t know how long episodes are going to evolve to be. In a manner of speaking, they’ll be as long as they “need” to be to address the singular topic I’ve chosen for the episode. Just like when a teacher gives that response for the required length of a paper, I know it’s unsatisfying. But I also don’t know how long it’s going to take to address each topic. I thought initially when I started the podcast it would be in the 10-20 minute time frame. Obviously I was mistaken for the last few. We’ll see what happens.
August 5, 2011
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.
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.”
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.
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.
November 10, 2010
It was brought to my attention very early this morning that there is an article on the Sports Business Journal about PowerForce bracelets (subscription required). The article states, in part:
“Power Force, a brand of ion-infused wristbands, has struck sponsorship and advertising deals with more than 100 colleges that will give the company exposure through radio broadcasts, in-stadium signage and on-campus displays. The seven-figure deals … will give Power Force marketing and media rights at most of the nation’s top colleges. On each of the campuses where Power Force made a deal, it will be recognized as the official supplier or preferred supplier of ion-infused products. … Power Force is in the process of supplying the licensed wristbands to the schools’ bookstores and other retail outlets around campus. The company also has begun to set up retail centers under tents on college football game days where it has rights near the stadium.”
In today’s society, money talks. Multi-million dollar sponsorship, if the article is accurate, could perhaps be why the CU-Boulder Director of Media Relations and Spokesperson was reluctant to say anything bad about them.
I still think it’s not a valid excuse, and this also continues to raise the interesting question about who is funding these guys. If these were “seven-figure deals” with 100 schools, that’s one hundred million to just under one billion dollars in capital that they have put up. For a company whose website is not very good (duplicated logos at the bottom, links not working or going to the wrong page at the bottom, unreadable font sizes, disappearing press releases that weren’t linked properly the first time, etc.), one really does wonder.
Oh, and in browsing the company’s legal page, I came across this gem:
“Unless we give you written permission in advance, any other use of this website, its content and its information, including linking or framing to this website, is strictly prohibited.”