Exposing PseudoAstronomy

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.

July 9, 2010

If Darwin Is Responsible for the Holocaust, Newton Is Responsible for Bombs


Introduction

Well, my class is over, at least one student is complaining about their final grade, and I’m diving back in to trying to get back to work and play. And blogging — yeah, that too.

I hadn’t thought of a good quick post topic to write about lately until I saw someone else’s post tonight about the Discovery Institute yet again reviving the canard that Darwin is responsible for the Holocaust. But the blogger raised an interesting point that I hadn’t thought about before, so I decided to do my own quick post on it.

Darwin and the Holocaust

If any of you are unfortunate enough to have watched that Ben Stein docudrama piece of G-rated-term-inserted that came out a year or so ago, “Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed,” then you know that a common claim of the Intelligent Design movement — indeed, any “anti-Darwin” or “-Evolution” movement – is that the idea of human evolution from a more “primitive” creature is directly linked to and the cause of lots of atrocities such as Hitler’s holocaust, Stalin’s holocaust, forced sterilization, eugenics, and so on.

This isn’t a straw man here — if you’re not aware of these claims, then I invite you to read any of the following:

Any of those will do. And now, let’s be clear: Charles Darwin was born on February 12, 1809, the same day and year as Abraham Lincoln. Conjures up an immediate feeling of “cool” and “he must be great” due to that simple association with Lincoln, right? Contrast that with: Darwinism led to Hitler! Gasp! Shudder! Instead of that warm, fuzzy feeling your gut is now reeling in contempt for the man. Hence why comparison with or association with or even just mentioning Hitler these days is almost in and of itself a logical fallacy (poisoning the well or ad hominem).

Anyway, my purpose here is to present what the ID folks and some Christians are doing in order to attack the formalizer of evolutionary theory and the theory itself, trying to link it with culturally distasteful concepts, happenings, and people. Let’s also be clear: Darwin died in 1882, fully a half century before the Nazi holocaust.

Does This Make Sense?

The purpose of this blog is not at all about evolution. But rather astronomy with some physics and geology thrown in. Hence the connection to the above: Claiming that Darwin was the cause of Hitler’s holocaust, or eugenics, or whatever is the same as saying that Isaac Newton is responsible for bombs. Or for missiles. Yes, dear reader, it’s the same thing. It doesn’t matter that projectile weapons had been in use for, oh, maybe 100,000 years before Newton was born. Or that missiles weren’t created until maybe 300 years after Newton died. Doesn’t matter. It’s the exact same logic that the Intelligent Design folks use to say Darwin was responsible for the holocaust.

Why? Because Newton formulated gravity. Without understanding how gravity works and being able to predict how objects will behave when forces are applied, then we can’t understand how bombs or missiles work. The entire idea behind “The Rocket Equation” (the bane of undergrad physics) wouldn’t have been possible without the gravitational theory Newton formulated or the calculus he is generally credited with creating. (“The Rocket Equation” is a differential equation that describes the motion of a rocket as mass is lost because in a rocket, the fuel is a significant fraction of the initial mass.)

The Bottom Line

Does that mean, from an actual objective view, that Newton really is responsible for missiles? Or is Archimedes responsible for battleships (after all, he’s generally credited with figuring out buoyancy)? Of course not. These men developed ideas of science that could predict how things would behave in the future and explain how things behaved in the past.

Similarly, Charles Darwin formulated the theory of evolution to describe the scientific theory that all creatures are descended from a common ancestor. This theory describes how things behaved in the past, and it is used to predict how things will behave or discoveries that will be made in the future.

So, Darwin Isn’t Responsible for the Holocaust?

No, he’s not. A scientific theory in itself does not have any sense of morality attached to it. It just is. It is neither good nor bad. People can use it and abuse it for good or bad things. Just as Newton’s theory of gravity describes how a missile launched from Iran can strike Israel, it also describes how Apollo 11 landed on the moon and returned safely with its crew. Using a theory to do something that is considered good or bad by the majority says nothing about that theory’s origin, nor should the blame or credit be given, necessarily, to that theory’s formulator.

Science is built upon the shoulders of giants, and if Darwin hadn’t formulated evolution when he did, someone else would have shortly thereafter. Similarly for Relativity — if Einstein hadn’t formulated it when he did, someone else would have very soon after, for the pieces were already out there, they just needed someone to put them together in a new way.

Final Thoughts

If you’re still not understanding this, let’s think of it a different way. Let’s use Christianity. Many Christians, I’m sure, are wonderful people who believe that Christianity stands for helping the sick, feeding the homeless, keeping children off the streets and occupied with productive things, and so on and so forth. Those are the tangible things – I’m ignoring the more spiritual for purposes of this argument.

So under this idea, priests will go to hospitals and sit with people who need to just have someone there with them. Churches will organize groups to work at a soup kitchen, etc.

But, using the exact same philosophy, using Christianity as a justification, the Crusades were launched from Europe, killing tens of thousands. The Inquisition destroyed livelihoods and lives throughout Europe a few centuries later. Literal witch hunts killed dozens in America, but tens of thousands across much of England and some of Europe only a century or two after that.

People will give Jesus credit for the ideas of Christianity and why they are volunteering in a school for underprivileged children, or running a daycare in the church basement. Do they also give Jesus credit for killing hundreds of thousands of people because of everything else people have done supposedly in his name?

Think about that next time you hear someone say that Darwin is responsible for Hitler.

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