Archive for the ‘Cosmology’ category

Program Notes: Tim Ferrris/Virtually Speaking Science edition.

December 19, 2011

Dear all,

I’ve been even more absent than usual, for which I apologize to any who’ve noticed (and cared about the absence) and wish coal-in-stockings for all those who were cheering the blessed silence.

Nothing disastrous has intervened — just a job that continues to kick my ass more than I thought likely, and seems, despite expectations, likely to keep on doing so for a while.  I’ve got a bunch of stuff half written (aka, with a title and or a piece of art cued up, and nothing much else).  But it may take me a while to get any of it out, which is why this bit of self-promotion is even less than usually paid-for by actual content.

But it’s at least plausible that some of you all might be interested in the conversation I’m going to have with science writer Tim Ferris this coming Wednesday.  This will be the third installment of my trial run as a once-a-month host there, and it will go out live at 9 p.m. EST/6 p.m PST as a web broadcast on Blog Talk Radio, a Second Life farrago, and ultimately as an archived podcast.

Tim is best known as a writer about cosmology and the history of attempts to figure it all out.  His books include The Red Limit, Coming of Age in the Milky Way and The Whole Shebang to name just three out of a much longer bibliography. He’s a fine film-maker and presenter as well, with three feature docs on PBS to his credit — most recently, Seeing in the Dark, Tim’s love letter to amateur astronomy, cleverly interwoven with just enough memoir to welcome the viewer directly into the passion Tim shares with the subjects of this movie.  (Full disclosure — I worked with Tim on some of the early phases of this project, so I may not be the least biased reviewer…but still, it bears elegant witness to the essential truth that the sky is a pleasure open literally to anyone on earth.)

We will talk about some of this.  It would be foolish not to, given Tim’s wealth of knowledge, and because cosmology is in fine form these days.  But we’ll spend at least as much of the hour, maybe more, talking about Tim’s most recent book, The Science of Liberty, published last year. It is both a historical essay examining what Tim argues is the essential connection between liberalism and scientific thinking (and vice versa)  — and a polemic to advance the view that, as Tim puts it in the last paragraph of the book:

“…science and liberalism have an unequaled capacity for doing good — for reducing cruel ignorance and villainous certitude, encouraging freedom and effective government, promoting human rights, putting food in the mouths of the hungry and attainable prospects in their future.

I have some quibbles with details of his argument that leads to that point — we may get into one or two of them — but to that claim I say, in a perfectly secular way, Amen and Amen.

Come on down on Wednesday.  Should be interesting.

Image:  Rembrandt van Rijn, The Night Watch, (I know — but I couldn’t resist the pun), 1642

The Stupid, It Burns…Crunchy Con takes on Cosmology Edition

October 16, 2009

I usually lie back and enjoy Roy Edoroso’s  Rod Dreher takedowns.  There are too many massive fails out there to write everytime something stupid this way comes.  Besides, Roy practically owns Mr. Crunchy at this point;  it is as if the Crunchster’s only reason for being is not, as he imagines, to serve as an incarnate vessel for divine sparkles, but to offer an inexhaustible spring of risible material for Edoroso decant  as needed.

But, led by the Hon. Mr. Edoroso himself to the latest of Mr. Dreher’s bizarre complaints — that Bill Maher is not scientific enough to receive atheist of the year honors (sic!) — I came across this howler, left for lesser jaws to masticate.  Dreher quotes one Mark Shea approvingly, passing on this nugget of insight:

Nobody will ever die from thinking God created the universe or having some doubts about the proposition that hydrogen is a substance which, if you leave it alone for 13.5 billion years, will turn into Angelina Jolie.

Shea, I find, is a verbose (sure you want to pick up that stone, sinner? — ed.) and — how to put this? — surpassingly simple thinker, at least when it comes to anything that might actually threaten that part of his faith that depends on traditional readings of Genesis 1 and 2.

If you click through the link you’ll find an almost completely unembellished argument from design, presented (with the necessary leaven of scripture) without any apparent awareness of the fate of all such arguments to date. (Please note that that link takes you to a representative gutting by a committed believer of one of the recent design arguments.)

But never mind that.  Just stop for a moment and look at the above.  How many errors packed into a single sentence, just 20 words?

While I suppose I must give Shea props for confining his proposition to the relatively safe ground of disputes about cosmogenesis, it is certainly true that believers who question the precise form in which  God created the universe have died at the hands of those who differed from such views.  (And just to make my point clear:  I’m not trying to restart the tedious argument over who killed more, religious zealots or anyone else.  Rather, I’m simply pointing out that the claim that belief does not have consequences, include the deaths of those who differ in belief, is nonsense.

“hydrogen…if you leave it alone for 13.5 billion years…” (actually 13.7 billion in the most recent results — but that’s not the kind of error I’ mean).  This is the real howler.

The last forty five years of cosmological research have shown that whatever else is going on, you take the primordial mix of about 80 percent hydrogen, almost all the rest helium, with  a scattering of lithium…and the universe does everything but leave it alone.  It does so in most of the interesting ways under the influence of gravity, or local variations in the shape of spacetime, if you want to go all Albert on me.  See this handy Wikipedia article for the timeline and links to deeper inquiry as your interests dictate.

Once you get to star formation within those handy collections of matter called galaxies,* you can see how the universe, by not leaving hydrogen alone, makes all kinds of outcomes possible, including but not limited to the conditions that permit the formation of earth-like planets.

That process starts once the temperature at the center of a nascent star reaches ten million degrees kelvin, at which point hydrogen in the star begins to fuse — the nuclear burning that produces the heat and light of a star.   Next comes several really big steps I’m leaving out here to produce the heavy elements… but for a fun tour with a bit more detail, may I immodestly suggest you check out chapters five and six in this NOVA film, wherein you will see how stellar fusion leads to bouillabaisse.

“…into Angelina Jolie.”  This, of course, is another hit of the argument from design masquerading as a pitiful simulation of pop-culture hiptitude.  Yes it may be difficult to imagine that the glory of a Hollywood beauty could simply happen by chance, (and perhaps it might be fair to say that in many cases it clearly does not, but one must sadly note that the designers involved are all too human).

But the notion that you can’t get to something as complicated and aesthetically appealing as Ms. Jolie, or a beautiful mountain landscape, a kitten…or whatever, is simply the old teleological mistake:  the assumption that because we see a particular outcome to a process then that the process must have been directed to that one end.

That’s a mistake in formal logic; and it is belied by any number of empirical observations.  My favorite, given the significance of eyes to the history of the those who would reject Darwin for design, lies with discovery of (a) the evolutionary pathways leading to the mammallian eye and (b) the finding that eyes evolved several times in different lineages, processes that exploited different biochemical and structural resources.  See this link for an overview and further links to lots of resources.

Finally, back again to the beginning, but with a twist:  “Nobody will ever die..about the proposition…” that the universe has evolved and that human reason can penetrate the events that drove that process.  Well, actually, people die all the time because of doubt and distrust of science produced by exactly this kind of smug and willed — really intended — ignorance.

Here’s one example:  anti vaccine nonsense is a contributor, still relatively minor but tragic, to the worldwide death total from vaccine-preventable diseases.

Here’s another:  significant excess deaths due to extreme weather events are a well documented phenomenon.  Consider Europe in 2003, or Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Among the more robust predictions of global warming science is that any “average” temperature increase will actually manifest itself in part through an increase in the amount of severe weather we will experience.

It follows, therefore, that unchecked global warming will lead to excess deaths in the future…a prospect made more likely by sustained denialism by those whose iron rice bowl stays whole only so long as they know not that which it is impolitic, or simply ideologically unacceptable, to have known.

And so on.  The larger point is simple:  science is not simply a bucket of facts, out of which it is possible to choose the bits you like  — antibiotics! genetically engineered crops! my iPhone!   Rather, it is a body of knowledge, a (many) theoretical frameworks, a method for knowing.  Its results are always in some degree provisional,** but its approach is not.

To say that you can’t both deny cosomological evolution and accept biochemistry is not a claim of dogma; rather it reflects the hard fact of experience that when you choose to pursue only those scientific ideas that give you comfort, you lose.  Your ability to find out crucial knowledge of the material world suffers in significant ways.

One last aside:  I do not line up with those in the “new atheist” camp who find any engagement with religion essentially simple minded.  But this stuff is — and it’s dangerous.  Seriously:  pace Mr. Shea, people do die from ignorance and it’s Twainian companion, certain knowledge of things that ain’t so.

In that context, I believe that the duty to rip apart this kind of nonsense lies very much in the thinking-religious camp.  As a general rule, if you don’t want to be characterized by the worst arguments made in your name, be the first and best debunkers.

*Galaxies are really the object of interest here.  As the film linked above portrays, they act as kind of cook pots — vessels in which the heavy elements produced by one generation of stars are available to get swept up in the next generation, until they accumulate to the point that interesting chemistry and ultimately, at least once, biochemistry, can take place.

**though mostly much less so than anti-science skeptics would have it.

Images:  Mihály Zichy, “Falling Stars,” 1879

Leonardo Da Vinci, “Mona Lisadetail, 1503-1519.

Sunday Stuff 1: Cosmology meets New Age Nonesense — Karadzic edition

July 27, 2008

Sean Carroll finds perverse pleasure — which I share in war criminal/face of evil* Radovan Karadzic’s reinvention of himself as a new-age healer.

Sean notes the quantum connection that Karadzic tried to make in his spiel — and this appropriation of a remarkably hard-headed body of science is an unfortunate byproduct of the fact that the language in which quantum theory is often popularized lends itself to all kinds of folly.

But I was struck by what seemed to me a new wrinkle in nonsense. Sean rightly snorts at the parody of quantification in this passage:

“It is widely believed our senses and mind can recognise only 1% of whatever exists around us. Three per cent we understand with our hearts. All that remains is shrouded in secrecy, out of the reach of our five senses; however, it is within our reach in the extra-sensory manner,” he [Karadzic] wrote in one article.

This is familiar enough — one of the standard moves used when purveying such stuff is to cloak it in trappings that suggest a science-like precision. But Sean missed a more specific potential source for the “numbers” (sic) in Karadzic’s “analysis” (sic-er) — one that now joins quantum theory as the unintential wellspring for silly-season stuff in our culture.

It’s all cosmology’s fault, of course. WMAP’s, in particular.

One of the most reported findings from the first round of analysis of the WMAP plot of the CMB was that the particular details of the hot and cold spots on that map permit a calculation of the composition of the universe — how much of the mass-energy it contains came in particular forms. It turned out that, rounding off as the early press did, 73 percent came in the form of dark energy; 23 percent or so as dark matter, and the remainder, roughly 4 percent, is ordinary matter.

You can see where this is going, can’t you?

Karadzic allows human capacity — senses and heart, to perceive four percent of reality. The rest is beyond our direct observation, and must be accessed by magic.

I can understand why Sean, a cosmologist, would shy away from this hideous conclusion: but what if modern cosmology, an extraordinary intellectual and technological achievement, making measurements at a precision that a generation or two ago would have been pure fantasy, producing observations about nature with exceptional rigor (which cannot be said of every branch of physics, at least not yet)…what if all this great work is just so much fodder for murderous quacks.

More to do on public engagement with science I would say…but then I would say that, wouldn’t I?

*Karadzic may be the face of evil. According to American negotiator Richard Holbrook, evil itself comes personified in the form of Ratko Mladic, Karadzic’s partner in crimes against humanity.

Mladic is still at large.

Image: WMAP Five Year Microwave Sky.

Just in Case You Were Wondering…

June 11, 2008

…When a lab created black hole might next form and end life as we know it….

(Joke, folks, in case you weren’t sure.)

…Follow this countdown to the activation of the Large Hadron Collider. (h/t Peter Steinberg via Planet Musings.)

Given that by pretty much any standard I can think the LHC of is the most complex machine ever built, this seems like a milestone worth noting.

One thing that does strike me in this last month before lift-off (or perhaps better, dive-in ) is the seeming reversal of roles in the fact of how often, and how frequently breakthrough science turns on top-flight engineering.

That is: a ton of science turns on instrumentation. A leap in the power of key instruments produces not just better data, but qualitatively new information. Think of how much of modern astronomy — and really, modern cosmology – turns on the twin transformations in the size of the light buckets of modern telescopes, and the enormous increase in the resolution and throughput of spectrographs. Everything from exoplanets to the fundamental questions raised by the observation of dark energy emerges directly from the engineering advances that produced the observational astronomy renaiscance of the last two decades. (Many of which, to be sure, were led by scientist-engineers, among whom Jerry Nelson may be taken as the type specimen).

High energy physics is in the same boat, perhaps more so: when and as observation of the universe fails to supply sufficient data (see above) only large machines focused on very small spatial interactions can do the job. It’s a cliche to call accelerators as the telescopes of the microcosmos, but the analogy ain’t bad. It is precise in this way: each significant increase in the power of the two types of instruments yields new science. The making of the tool precedes the discoveries that we then, rightly, celebrate

Which is my point: engineers take their lumps for, in the phrase I remember from a now-mislaid Seth Lloyd interview, trading in science so well established that even engineers can understand it. See xkcd‘s take for the succinct version of the basic trope:*

Well, for the last ten years or so, it has been the engineers ascendancy. In a few weeks and over years to come, physicists will again dominate the life and meaning of the LHC. Consider this a tip of the hat to the extraordinary creative skill that will permit the glamorous side of high energy physics to strut the catwalk once more

*There is also J. Robert Oppenheimer’s “compliment” to the chemist George Kistiakowsky, whose leadership of the implosion group was essential to the completion of the Manhattan Project’s plutonium bomb. In an interview late in his life conducted by Carl Sagan, ultimately edited and broadcast on NOVA, Kistiakowsky said that Oppenheimer told him that as a chemist, he was a very good third rate physicist.

Friday (Isaac) Newton Blogging: Monday Cosmology Edition.

June 2, 2008

Update:  See correction below.**

(Cross-posted at Cosmic Variance.)

Let me just admit up front that I am a glutton for punishment.

Exhibit A: last year I read the Principia for pleasure.*

That’s not exactly right– it is more accurate to say that in the context of writing a book on Isaac Newton’s role as currency cop and death penalty prosecutor, I found myself reading the Principia as literature rather than the series of proofs it appears to be. Just like John Locke, who had to ask Christiaan Huygens if he could take the mathematical demonstrations on faith (Huygens said he could), I read to see what larger argument Newton was making about the ways human beings could now make sense of material experience. (This is, by the way, the only connection I can imagine that Locke and I share.)

What I got out of the exercise, more than anything else, was a reminder of how something we now mostly take for granted is in fact truly extraordinary: taken all in all, it seems genuinely remarkable that cosmology exists at all as a quantitative, empirical science.

That is: it is not obvious – or at least it wasn’t, all that long ago, that it would ever be possible to treat the universe as a whole as an object of study – especially given our very constrained vantage point from within that which we want to examine.

Most accounts of the story of modern cosmology more or less unconsciously downplay the strangeness of the claim that we can in fact make sense of the universe as a whole. They begin – mine did — with Einstein and the 1917 paper “Cosmological Considerations in the General Theory of Relativity, (to be found in English translation here.) Cosmology in this telling becomes more or less an inevitable extension of a recent advance in theoretical physics; the change in worldview precedes this extension of the apparatus of general relativity into a new calculation.

I recant: though I certainly wrote my version of this basic tale, reading Newton has reminded me of the much more radical change in the understanding of what it is possible to think about that had to precede all that cosmology (among much else) has achieved.

It certainly was not clear that the universe as a whole was subject to natural philosophical scrutiny in 1684, the year of Edmond Halley’s fortunate visit to Trinity College, Cambridge, and his more-or-less innocent question about the curve traced by a planet, assuming “the force of attraction towards the sun to be reciprocal to the square of their distance from it?  that would produce an elliptical planetary orbit with the sun at one focus.

An ellipse  inverse square relationship, Newton told Halley.

How did he know?

Why – he had calculated it.

By 1686, Newton had extended and revised his off-the-cuff answer into the first two books of Principia, both titled “The Motion of Bodies.” These pursued the implications of his three laws of motion through every circumstance Newton could imagine, culminating in his final demolition of Cartesian vortex physics.

But even though he had worked through a significant amount of mathematical reasoning developing the consequences of his inverse square law of gravitation, he left the ultimate demonstration of the power of these ideas for book three.

Books one and two had been “strictly mathematical,” Newton wrote. If there were any meat and meaning to his ideas, though, he must “exhibit the system of the world from these same principles.”

To make his ambitions absolutely clear Newton used the same phrase for the title of book three. There his readers would discover “The System of the World.”

This is where the literary structure of the work really comes into play, in my view. Through book three, Newton takes his audience through a carefully constructed tour of all the places within the grasp of his new physics. It begins with an analysis of the moons of Jupiter, demonstrating that inverse square relationships govern those motions. He went on, to show how the interaction between Jupiter and Saturn would pull each out of a perfect elliptical orbit; the real world, he says here, is messier than a geometer’s dream.

He worked on problems of the moon’s motion, of the issues raised by the fact that the earth is not a perfect sphere, and then, in what could have been a reasonable resting point for the book as a whole, he brought his laws of motion and gravity literally down to earth, with his famous analysis of the way the moon and the sun influence the tides.

Why not stop there? The story thus far had taken gravity from the limits of the observed solar system to the ground beneath each reader’s feet. More pragmatically – it told a story whose significance Newton’s audience would have grasped immediately: the importance of understanding the rules governing tides was obvious enough to the naval powers of the day.

No matter. Newton kept on going. The last section of his world-system turned to the celestial and seemingly impractical: the motion of comets, in an analysis of the track of the great comet of 1680

Newton presented his findings through two different approaches: one produced by collecting all the data points he could of traveler’s observations and plotting the comet’s track against those points; and the other in which he selected just three points and calculated the path implied.

The two analyses matched almost exactly, and both showed that this comet did not complete a neat, elliptical orbit. Rather, it traced a parabola.

Newton knew what he had done. He was no accidental writer. A parabola, of course, is a curve that keeps on going – and that meant that at the end of a very long and very dense book, he lifted off again from the hard ground of daily reality and said, in effect, look: All this math and all these physical ideas govern everything we can see, out to and past the point where we can’t see anymore.

Most important, he did so with implacable rigor, a demonstration that, he argued, should leave no room for dissent. He wrote “The theory that corresponds exactly to so nonuniform a motion through the greatest part of the heavens, and that observes the same laws as the theory of the planets and that agrees exactly with exact astronomical observations cannot fail to be true.” (Italics added).

And now, finally, to get back to the point: this, I would argue, was the essential first and in some ways the most difficult step in the foundations of cosmology. With it Newton transformed the scale of the universe we inhabit, making it huge, perhaps infinite. Even more important, he demonstrated that a theory that could not fail to be true made it possible to examine one phenomenon — matter in motion under the influence of gravity — throughout all space.

That thought thrilled Newton’s contemporaries – Halley caught the mood in his dedicatory poem to the Principia, writing that “Error and doubt no longer encumber us with mist;/….We are now admitted to the banquets of the Gods;/We may deal with laws of heaven above; and we now have/The secret keys to unlock the obscure earth….” To catch a distant echo of that euphoria, just imagine what it would have been like to contemplate that ever receding comet, fifteen years into its journey towards who knew where at the time of Newton’s writing, and know that its behavior was knowable through an extraordinary act of human invention.

It’s a whole ‘nother story to ask what it would take to create a similar sense of pride and pleasure in a general audience today. But just to get the discussion going, I’d suggest that one of the oddities of contemporary cosmology as presented to the public is the degree to which the universe at large has become more homey; the very success in making the argument that there is a continuous scientific narrative to be told from the Big Bang to the present makes it harder to see just how grand a claim that is.

So, to end with an open invitation to this community: what would make current physical ideas as powerful and as intelligibly strange as Newton was able to make his story of a comet traveling from and to distances with out limit?

Last housekeeping notes: in one of the more premature bits of self-promotion in publishing history, the Newton material discussed above derives from my book, tentatively titled Newton and the Counterfeiter, coming early next year from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (and Faber, for those of you across the pond).

Also – my thanks again to Sean Carroll for welcoming me to Cosmic Variance.

*If you are minded to pick up a copy of Principia, get this edition. Not only is it a well made book, easy to look at, well printed, with clear diagrams, it comes with the invaluable guide to reading the Principia written by I. Bernard Cohen. Accept no substitutes.

**Thanks to reader and award-winning physics teacher David Derbes for catching my inversion of the problem Halley put to Newton.  Let this be a lesson to me:  blog in haste; check one’s notes at leisure; repent in public.

Image: Woodcut by Jiri Daschitzsky, “The Great Comet of 1577.” Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Eric Idle (and friend) offer an antidote to magical thinking.

January 14, 2008

Eric Idle (of Monty Python fame) offers a little light entertainment on the theme of humanity’s place in the universe here.

A minor critical note: some of the images are mere wallpaper, not actually connected to the lines being sung. But the ideas there, and it sure offers an antidote to what John Scalzi so howling viciously describes here.


Image: Doune Castle (one of the locations for Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Think, “Your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries.”) Image released into the public domain by copyright holder. Source: Wikipedia Commons.