Exposing PseudoAstronomy

August 22, 2013

Podcast Episode 84: David Sereda’s Claims Clip Show, Part 2


David Sereda:
UFOs, quantum, new-age …
Let’s see what’s out there.

Whew. This one took a long time to put together and get through. Eleven clips from Coast to Coast with David Sereda making various claims and me explaining what parts of physics, astronomy, and general astronomy are incorrect.

The purpose of this episode is to move on from the background I gave in Part 1 to a very clip-y show with lots of different claims to explore. It’s an interesting episode, I think. Not only for style, but for content. Let me know what you think.

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August 11, 2013

Podcast Episode 83: David Sereda’s Claims Clip Show, Part 1

Filed under: astronomy,new-age,physics,podcast — Stuart Robbins @ 10:16 pm
Tags: , , , , ,

David Sereda:
UFOs, quantum, new-age …
Let’s see what’s out there.

After realizing I had around 10 minutes of clips, lots already written, and more I wanted to write, this is a Part 1 of 2 mini-series on the claims of David Sereda.

The purpose of this episode is to provide a background into how Sereda went from a UFOlogist to a more generic new-ager with a few specific claims of his own. I then go into two of his main claims (of MANY that I’ll go more into next time) and wrap up with when giving your professional background becomes an argument from authority logical fallacy. Actually, almost everything that Sereda says is a Name that Logical Fallacy exercise.

This episode “required” me listening to approximately 40 hours of Coast to Coast AM. I took nearly 10,000 words of notes. I think I may take up drinking …

Again the new blog is WND Watch.

February 8, 2013

Podcast #64: Quantum Nonsense


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.

November 23, 2010

Please, Don’t Appeal to Quantum Mechanics to Propagate Your Pseudoscience


Introduction

There is no formal logical fallacy that I know of called “Appeal to Quantum Mechanics,” but I think it should be on the books. It is a frequently utilized term by purveyors of New Age beliefs and other ideas to try to make their ideas seem more sciencey when, in fact, to anyone who actually knows quantum mechanics and slaved away for tens of hours a week on QM homework, it just makes them sound stupid.

This post is another about Andrew D. Basiago, in particular his interview on the Coast to Coast AM radio show from November 11, 2010. In it, he discussed his supposed involvement in “Project Pegasus,” alleged the early time travel work done by the U.S. government. For those of you who have a very good memory, you may recall I have discussed Andrew Basiago before in the context of his pareidolia-fueled claims of discovering alien life on Mars and demanding that National Geographic publish what he found after blowing up images 5000%, stretching them, and then wildly extrapolating.

Statements by Andrew Basiago

The following are direct quotes from Basiago, mostly from hour 3 of the broadcast:

“In fact, I spent four ‘phantom summers’ in New Mexico … . There was an extensive cover-up of our summers in New Mexico, uh, in this sort of quantum displacement sort of way.”

“I was involved in actual wormholing where I was moving through the quantum tunnel.”

“So the very act of sending the same child or different child to the same ‘event’ was – I guess as a result of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle – changing that event a little bit.”

“Actually, what happens is when you go back and visit yourself in the past, you’re somebody from the future visiting your alpha-timeline, then if you interfere with your past at that moment, um, basically Schrödinger’s cat takes over and a new timeline branches off that’s affected by your visit, but then you return to the future that you left.”

George Noory: “Did anything go wrong with Project Pegasus? Anything?”
Basiago: “… Certainly the notion that propagating holographs of past and future events somehow destabilizes the quantum hologram, that was suggested by the Dan Burisch testimony, provided to Project Camelot, is not true.”

What Is Quantum Mechanics?

Without going through math and a lot of explanation that is not the focus of this blog post, quantum mechanics is basically the physics of the very small. We’re talking about what happens on atomic scales, what happens with electrons (sub-atomic particles), and light. We are not talking about time, space-time, nor any object on the macro-scopic scale, where “macroscopic” means in this context objects that are about the size of a cell or larger (collections of millions of atoms).

Quantum mechanics is weird. In fact, it almost fits the very definition of “weird” since many of the observations at atomic scales defies our concept of how objects “should” act. I think this is why a lot of purveyors of modern pseudoscience rely on an appeal to quantum mechanics to describe how their ideas work: Since most people don’t understand quantum mechanics beyond the “things get weird” part, people are more willing to accept a “quantum mechanics says this can happen” claim and just trust it.

But quantum mechanics is not magic. You cannot use quantum mechanics to argue that psychic powers work. Or that time travel is possible. Or even that information (which also has a very specific definition) can be transmitted instantaneously.

Quantum mechanics has a very specific set of rules and governing equations that have been verified to be correct to within measurement capabilities. (Hence it is also a “theory” in the scientific sense.)

Because quantum mechanics does not make sense to many people in our every-day world, physicists have come up with some analogies that are used to describe some of the consequences of the field. For example …

Schrödinger’s Cat: One of the consequences of quantum mechanics is that a particle‘s state will not be known until it is observed. I remind you that in this field, “particle” and “observed” have very specific definitions and cannot be extrapolated to, for example, “person calling the telephone” and “picking up the phone” (yes, people do make that extrapolation). In fact, the consequences of this had three different interpretations in the early days of the field, where the Copenhägen interpretation was that the particle actually exists in all states until it is observed. This turns out to be the actual way it works (experimentally determined a few decades ago), but in the early days there were two competing ideas, one being that it exists in a particular state, we just don’t know what it is until it is measured. This is where the famous Einstein quote comes from: “God doesn’t play dice with the universe.”

In order to think of this from a more familiar scenario rather than an electron’s energy level, the idea of Schrödinger’s cat is used, where Schrödinger is effectively the founder of quantum mechanics: A cat is placed in a sealed box from which no information can escape. A piece of radioactive material is placed in there before it’s sealed, where the release of the poison is a purely random process (governed by quantum mechanics). After the box is sealed, an outsider cannot know whether the cat is alive or dead because they do not know if the poison has killed the cat. Therefore, for mathematical purposes, the cat is described as both alive and dead. It is only after the box is opened and you make the observation that you know which is the case.

Definition of “Quantum:” In physics, quantum does not mean “magic” nor “[fill in the blank with something].” It has a very specific definition: A discrete quantity, usually of energy. In fact, the whole field of quantum mechanics is based around the idea that energy cannot come in a pure spectrum of intervals, but it can only happen in discrete – albeit very small – packets. This was a very novel idea 100 years ago and it still surprises many people. But, that’s what “quantum” means, no more, and no less. Putting it in front of another word does not make that other word suddenly mean something different. In fact, as it is normally applied, it makes the other word meaningless.

Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle: Again, this has a very specific definition – and a mathematical one at that: Δx·Δpħ/2. What this means in words is that the change in position times the change in momentum must be greater than or equal to half of h-bar, where h-bar is h/(2·π), where h is Planck’s constant (a very small number). Unless you’re a physicist or have really studied the field, you are probably thinking some combination of, “huh?” and/or “what the heck does that mean?” In plainer English, the consequence of this is that when we measure a particle’s position or momentum, the more precise we measure that value, the less precisely we can know the other. This is not because of our measuring equipment, rather it seems to be a general rule of the universe, that the particle’s other quantity really, literally, becomes less defined and knowable.

Let’s Apply This to That

Now that you have taken a crash course in quantum mechanics, let’s take another look at some of Basiago’s comments:

Basiago: “In fact, I spent four ‘phantom summers’ in New Mexico … . There was an extensive cover-up of our summers in New Mexico, uh, in this sort of quantum displacement sort of way.”
Analysis: Sticking “quantum” in front of “displacement” makes it next to meaningless. If anything, a “quantum displacement” would mean that he has physically moved less than the width of an atom.

Basiago: “I was involved in actual wormholing where I was moving through the quantum tunnel.”
Analysis: Again, sticking “quantum” this time in front of “tunnel” still makes this a meaningless phrase. “Quantum” does not have anything to do with, effectively, the fabric of the universe, and wormholes are more of an application of General Relativity, something very different from quantum mechanics.

Basiago: “So the very act of sending the same child or different child to the same ‘event’ was – I guess as a result of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle – changing that event a little bit.”
Analysis: Now that you know what the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle is – you cannot know both the position and momentum of a particle to arbitrarily high precision – you can see that the idea of time travel paradoxes has nothing to do with it. This is an appeal to a scientific term and equation that has zero bearing on the claim, showing (a) his lack of understanding of quantum mechanics, and (b) fairly good evidence (if you didn’t have it already) that his claims are made up.

Basiago: “Actually, what happens is when you go back and visit yourself in the past, you’re somebody from the future visiting your alpha-timeline, then if you interfere with your past at that moment, um, basically Schrödinger’s cat takes over and a new timeline branches off that’s affected by your visit, but then you return to the future that you left.”
Analysis: This is very much like the above example where Basiago made a conjecture from his story and then inserted a thought exercise from quantum mechanics to try to make it sound more believable, when in actuality the insertion shows again he has no idea what he’s talking about.

Noory: “Did anything go wrong with Project Pegasus? Anything?”
Basiago: “… Certainly the notion that propagating holographs of past and future events somehow destabilizes the quantum hologram, that was suggested by the Dan Burisch testimony, provided to Project Camelot, is not true.”
Analysis: This is another example of the first two where Basiago has inserted the word “quantum” into his sentence in the apparent hope to make it sound more sciencey and hence believable when, again, it makes the phrase even more meaningless than it would be without it.

Final Thoughts

Please, whenever anyone uses any form of appeal to quantum mechanics to explain their fringe claim, do a little bit of research to figure out what the term actually means and whether it applies to that situation. I have tried in this post to point out the three most commonly used quantum mechanics terms that have been borrowed by today’s pseudoscience in the hope that you are now armed with some of the information necessary to critically analyze various claims.

And for those of you who are prone to make these kinds of claims, a few words of advice: Stop using quantum mechanics. It does not mean, “Anything you can dream up, I can do.”

November 20, 2008

A Post on Physics and Astronomical Terminology

Filed under: terminology — Stuart Robbins @ 2:28 pm
Tags: , , ,

Introduction

There is a lot of terminology that is in popular culture and the media that are often used incorrectly, or they are implied to mean the incorrect thing. The purpose of this post is to address three of them, in order from used most often correctly to used least often correctly: Light-year, parsec, and quantum.

Light-Year

The Bad: People often mistake this for a unit of time or advancement. For example, “Buy our products! We’re light years ahead of the competition!” Unless they’re around another star, this phrase has no meaning.

The Good: A “light-year” is a unit of length, NOT a unit of time. It is defined as the distance that light will travel in 1 year in a vacuum (such as space). Light travels at 299,792,458 meters per second (186,282 miles per second).

It takes light about 1.5 seconds to reach the moon from Earth, and so for very close astronomical objects, we sometimes talk about “light-seconds” (the distance light travels in 1 second).

Light from the sun takes about 8.3 minutes to reach Earth, and so distances within the solar system are sometimes referred to as “light-minutes,” the distance light travels in 1 minute. This is important for communications with spacecraft, even those that are at Mars. At its closest, the round-trip light time for for a signal to be sent from Mars to Earth and then for Earth to send a signal back is about 8 minutes. At its farthest, the round-trip light time is about 40 minutes. Because of this, craft have to at least have some autonomy in their decision making ability.

Light from the closest star system – the Proxima, Alpha, and Beta Centauri stars – takes about 4.3 years to reach us, and hence we have a distance of 4.3 light-years. Distances within our galaxy are generally measured in light-years, with our galaxy being about 100,000 light-years in diameter.

Parsec

The Bad: People often mistake this for a unit of time. The most famous example is from Star Wars, where Han Solo states that his ship is so good, it “made the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs.”

The Good: A parsec, like a light-year, is a unit of distance and NOT time. The definition of a parsec is a mathematical one that I am simply providing a link to rather than explain. It is approximately equal to 3.26 light-years, making the distance to the nearest star system about 1.3 parsecs away. Astronomers will often use parsec and light-year interchangeably for the near-by universe, out to about the closest galaxies. Beyond that, they generally use parsecs instead of light-years.

Quantum

The Bad: After I took a 2-semester class in quantum mechanics in college, this became one of my biggest pet-peeves in advertising: “This product represents a quantum leap over the competition!” Or even news to describe something in (gasp!) science: “This is a quantum leap in our understanding of this phenomena!”

It sounds cool, and “quantum” is the catch-word of the day because it sounds sciency and technical and cool. And everybody’s doing it. It makes whatever it is being used to describe to be huge, major, and fantastic. But it’s not.

The Good: The “quantum” in quantum mechanics is really the basis of the whole theory: That there is no continuum of energy levels or states, but rather things come in discrete levels. A good analogy is to think of a trombone versus a flute (not an open-holed flute for you flautists). A trombone has a slide, and by moving the slide, you can create a seamless variation in pitch, going from low to high and back without hitting discrete notes. With a flute, however, you have keys, and though you can hit every pitch on the scale, the instrument is not designed to allow you to make notes that are in-between “real” notes.

The trombone represents the classical way of thinking about energy levels. The flute represents the quantum way. To extend the analogy, each note on the flute represents a different “quanta,” and making a jump – or leap – from one quanta to another (so from a C# to B, for example) is a “quantum leap.”

When you’re talking about energy levels of atoms, though, this leap in energy is very small. The largest single step is when an electron goes from the ground state (lowest energy level) in a hydrogen atom to the 1st energy level. This has an energy transition of 13.6 eV (a number that’s ground into any physicist’s mind over and over and over and over and …). An “eV” is an “electron-volt” It is a very small amount of energy, with 1 eV = 1.6·10-19 Joules. 1 Watt is 1 Joule/second. So, to power a 60 Watt bulb for 1 second, you would need around 1018 electrons around hydrogen atoms to go from the 1st state to the ground (to release the energy). This is about 0.01 milligrams of hydrogen, which isn’t much.

However, my point in spewing out all these numbers is to drive the idea that a “quantum” is an extremely small amount, and to state that something represents a “quantum leap” over what has been done before is, when using the true definition of the word, saying that the new thing has not changed any perceivable amount.

Final Thoughts

You may read this diatribe and think that it’s a rant about nothing. That may be, but my impression of blogs in general is that they are rants about nothing.

This post is really more about trying to bridge the gap between the popular usage of scientific-sounding words and what they really mean. Without clearly defined language, ideas cannot be successfully communicated, and even though I know that an advertiser’s “quantum leap” in their product that makes it “light-years ahead” of the competition is supposed to mean it’s fantastic, it’s really just reflecting ignorance on the part of the marketing firm.

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