Archive for the ‘Einstein’ category

I’m Shocked! Shocked To Find That There Are Neutrinos Going On Here

November 4, 2011

[Disclaimer — sort of: I’ve been feeling the increasing need to think past the seeping pustule that is our media/politics fail lately, so I’ve been getting my head back to the stuff of my day job, science writing.  Of course, it’s impossible to think about science in the US today without drifting onto political territory, so we get there in the end.  But most of what follows looks at what one of the truly hot stories in the physical sciences tells us about the way we figure things out about the world.  This post, by the way, here slightly edited, was  originally published at Scientific American.  It was wicked long there too.]

______________

I’ve been doing a little poking around the matter of the Italian Grand Prix (neutrino division).  Plenty has been written about this already, of course, but what strikes me a few weeks into the story is how effectively the response to the announcement of a possible detection of faster-than-light neutrinos illustrates what actually goes into the making of a piece of science.  That, of course, also sheds light on,what it looks like when the intention is not to create understanding, but to obscure it.

First, to the neutrinos themselves.  For many of the actually knowledgeable folks I talk to (i.e., not me) the question about infamous Faster Than Light gang of neutrinos is not if they’ll be found out, but when.

That is:  while the experimental technique reported in the OPERA measurement is good enough to be taken seriously, many physicists note that challenges to special relativity have a very poor track record.  A number of other observations would have to be radically reinterpreted for the measurement of the travel time of neutrinos from CERN to Gran Sasso to stand up as an authentic discovery of faster than light travel.  See my earlier post on this subject for a bit of background and some useful links.

An example:  the OPERA result, if it holds up, would complicate (to say the least) the interpretation of the hugely wonderful detection of neutrinos emitted in the stellar collapse that produced  Supernova 1987a.  As the parent star of the supernova collapsed, the catastrophe produced 1058 neutrinos, give or take a couple.  In what was dubbed the  first triumph of neutrino astronomy, three detectors at widely separated locations detected a grand total of 24 of those (anti)neutrinos, all arriving within 13 seconds of each other.

Those neutrinos did reach planet earth before light from the supernova blast arrived. But that quirk of timing has nothing to do with faster than light travel.  Rather, it turns on the details of supernova physics.  Neutrinos are produced in the initial stellar collapse, and because neutrinos interact with basically nothing — they are untouched by either the strong nuclear force or electromagnetism  — the supernova-neutrinos sped out from the dying star more or less at the moment of the blast.  Light, by contrast is electromagnetic radiation – and readily interacts with charged particles.

That property caused the light of the supernova to crash around the interior of the evolving supernova explosion as photons interacted with all the extremely electromagnetically energetic matter at hand – a dance that held them up for a time.  After a few hours, that light escaped from the interior of the supernova blast and could begin an uninterrupted journey our way. But by that time, it lagged behind the neutrino signal, which is what produced the gap between the neutrino and optical detections of the event.

Think of it as gridlock in the midst of a stellar rush hour — an obstruction 1987a’s neutrinos, riding on (highly metaphoric) rails, were able to avoid.  The fact that the two signals arrived only hours apart simply means that the neutrinos travelled at or very close to the speed of light — not faster than.  If the neutrinos traveled faster than light – even at the rather small excess suggested by the OPERA experiment — they should have arrived much earlier than they did – four years or so before the light from the explosion.

Now there is a way out of this seeming contradiction, because the supernova neutrinos were significantly less energetic than the ones measured in the OPERA experiment — so it’s not accurate to say that both results can’t be true.  But even so, were superluminal neutrinos to prove to be real, then whatever new physics that might be invented to explain the result would have to do so in a way that still allowed Supernova 1987a’s neutrinos to behave as observed.

That’s the problem for any challenge to a fundamental pillar of knowledge:  if the new observation is correct, it must be understood in a way that accommodates all the prior work consistent with the older view that is under scrutiny.  As physics popularizers always note:  Einstein’s account of gravity — the General Theory of Relativity — delivers results that collapse into those of Newton’s earlier theory through the range of scales for which Newtonian physics works just fine.  If it didn’t, then that would be a signal that there was something wrong with the newer theory.

Hence the stakes here.  Given that special relativity — the concept at risk if superluminal neutrinos turn out to  exist — has been described to me by a physicist friend as more a property of the universe than a “mere” law of nature, it becomes clear, I think why this result is so fascinating.  If neutrinos really do go faster than light, then there’s a huge challenge to come up with a theoretical account of what’s going on that allows OPERA’s neutrinos the ability to race whilst Supernova 1987a’s crew dawdled along at mere light speed — to name just one issue that would need resolution.

That is:  facts on their own are orphans. They require a conscious act of decision on the part of their interrogator to gain meaning.  In an essay published the same year Einstein proposed special relativity, the great mathematician and physicist Henri Poincareasked “who shall choose the facts which…are worthy of freedom of the city in science.”  For Poincare, the answer was obvious:  that choice “is the free activity of the scientist” — which is to say that it falls to a theorist to think through how one fact, placed next to another, fits into a coherent framework that can survive the test of yet more facts, those already known and those to be discovered.

All of which is to say that even before the Italian observations stand or fall on attempts to replicate the finding, theoretical analyses — thinking hard — can go a some distance in determining whether superluminal neutrinos prove “worthy” of a place in science’s city.

And that’s the long way round to commend a really excellent piece by Matt Strassler, an old friend whose day job as a theoretical particle physicist at Rutgers informs his recently acquired mantle as a physics blogger.  Check him out — not just this post — because, IMHO, he’s very rapidly proving himself to be in the first rank of popular translators of some really deep stuff.

In the linked piece, Matt writes about an argument put forward by Andrew Cohen and Nobel Laureate Sheldon Glashow, both theoreticians at Boston University.  To gloss Matt’s explication: Cohen and Glashow have developed some earlier thinking that originally focused on the phenomenon called Cerenkov radiation.  Matt discusses Cerenkov radiation here — basically it’s electromagnetic radiation emitted by  energetic particles going faster than the speed of light in a medium (water, or air, for example, rather than a vacuum) — which, as Matt explains, does not violate special relativity.

Neutrinos do emit such radiation, very weakly, but that’s not the key to the argument; the effect is too small to matter for the OPERA result.  Rather, Cohen and Glashow point out that superluminal neutrinos should have produced a different kind of emission that is roughly analogous to the Cerenkov effect — and that each time one of OPERA’s neutrinos did so, it would have lost a lot of energy — enough to register on OPERA instruments.  Which means, as Matt puts it, that

… the claim of Cohen and Glashow is that OPERA is inconsistent with itself — that it could not have seen a speed excess without an energy distortion, the latter being easier to measure than the former, but not observed. The upshot, then, is that OPERA’s finding that its neutrinos arrived earlier than expected cannot be due to their traveling faster than the speed of light in vacuum. Something is probably wrong with OPERA’s expectation, not the neutrinos.

Now this is a theoretical argument and it could be wrong in a variety of ways.  In the comment thread to Matt’s post, the very clever physicist Lee Smolin​ points to one possible physical case in which Cohen and Glashow’s proposition would not hold.  Theory, interpretation, decides what facts are worthy of being known — but theories are subject to revision, of course, and never more so on those occasions when one fact or another stubbornly refuses to submit to judgment.

But what I find so pleasing about this whole sequence of thought is the way it illustrates what actually happens in science, as opposed to the parody of scientific process you see in a lot of public accounts — especially when politically contentious research is involved.

The OPERA team made the best measurement they could; when it refused to succumb to their search for some alternative explanation, they published the result, no doubt reasonably certain that it would be subject to relentless examination — under which there was (and remains) a very good chance this work will be shown to be wrong.  Cohen and Glashow have now offered a formal structure that suggests that what we know of the way the universe actually works presents a major logical challenge to the validity of the OPERA claim of discovery.  The ultimate resolution will turn both on continuing experimental work and on the kind of effort Glashow and Cohen offer:  the hard work of figuring out what it would mean if the result were true — or perhaps better: what understanding do we possess now that suggests the OPERA result is either real or an error.

Contrast that process with the critique of climate science that comes from the Right, as I discussed briefly in my post on Eric Stieg’s rather blistering review of the recent announcement of a study affirming (yet again) mainstream climate research.  Stieg wrote, in effect, that the attacks on climate science turn on a refusal to engage one blunt fact:   there is an underlying physical understanding of the basic theory of the system under study:  climate change driven by changes in the chemical composition of the atmosphere.  That theoretical framework determines the course of empirical research, the search for facts worthy of being known:

…the reason for concern about increasing CO2 comes from the basic physics and chemistry, which was elucidated long before the warming trend was actually observable…The warming trend is something that climate physicists saw coming many decades before it was observed. [Italics in the original.] The reason for interest in the details of the observed trend is to get a better idea of the things we don’t know the magnitude of (e.g. cloud feedbacks), not as a test of the basic theory. If we didn’t know about the CO2-climate connection from physics, then no observation of a warming trend, however accurate, would by itself tell us that anthropogenic global warming is “real,” or (more importantly) that it is going to persist and probably increase.

Which is another way of saying that most of the noise from those who both deny  the reality of climate change and would impugn the honor of climate researchers misses the point.  Not because there isn’t reason to test the reliability of any measurement — of a fast neutrino or a tree ring sequence, either one — but because the issue in either case is understanding what we do know, and then engaging the challenge of a new result in that context.

Hence the (perhaps meta-) value of the faster-than-light neutrino story.  This experiment will have to overcome the hurdles thrown up by special relativity’s ubiquitous influence, by the physics of high energy phenomena and so on.  That’s how the process of discovery moves from tantalizing initial impressions to settled knowledge.  Understanding that process illuminates the hurdles facing climate science denialists:  to advance their case, they must reconcile their criticisms of mainstream climate research with the exceptionally well understood basic physics of radiative transfer and the thermal properties of different gases — as well as streams of evidence flowing from direct observations and from the ongoing inquiry into the correlation between evolving climate models and what we can see of the climate itself.

By contrast: cherry-picking dishonestly-excerpted emails is not science.

Oh — and as long as we’ve come this far, let me add a note about another challenge to the faster-than-light neutrino claim that’s come up over the time I’ve been working on this post.

In one of dozens, at least, of efforts to pry apart the actual workings of the OPERA experiment, University of Groningen Ronald van Elburg, has offered his candidate for the (by-many) expected systematic error that could have tricked the OPERA researchers into believing they had observed an effect that is not there.

Elburg has zeroed in on one of the obviously critical elements of the measurement, the calibration of the clocks that timed the neutrinos on their journey.  To make that observation, the team relied on the atomic clocks used to synchronize the signals from Global Positioning Satellites — GPS.  The tricky part is that the satellites that house the clocks are in motion — pretty fast too — relative to the labs on the ground and the neutrinos traveling between the source and the detector.

When one object is in motion, travelling in a different reference frame than that of some measuring apparatus, then special relativity comes into play.  As the TechReview’s Physics ArXiv blog describes the issue, this means

[that] from the point of view of a clock on board a GPS satellite, the positions of the neutrino source and detector are changing. “From the perspective of the clock, the detector is moving towards the source and consequently the distance travelled by the particles as observed from the clock is shorter,” says van Elburg.

The correction needed to account for this relativistic shrinking of the path as seen from the point of view of the measuring device in space is almost exactly the same size as the seeming excess speed of the neutrinos the OPERA team believes they’ve detected.  And that would mean that…

far from breaking Einstein’s theory of relatively, the faster-than-light measurement will turn out to be another confirmation of it.

It’s not as open and shut as all that.  Elburg’s argument makes the assumption that the OPERA team failed to account for the quite well-known special relativistic effects on GPS signals — and while they may have, we don’t know that yet.  At the same time the original OPERA paper reports some checks on the timekeeping essential to the experiment.  I understand that the group is working through the long list of necessary responses to specific suggestions like this one — while at the same time preparing for a yet higher precision measurement of the effect they think they have seen.

But the broader point remains:  experimental physics is (and has always been) very, very hard to do, involving an effort to push the limits of precision beyond any current standard.  Because the effects sought are at the limits of our capacity to detect them (necessarily; if it were easy, we’d have seen whatever it was already) there is an enormous amount of subtle knowledge that goes into constructing the framework of each experiment.  The machines don’t just have to work; you have to understand in detail how quantum mechanics and relativity and all the increasingly subtle applications of the broad ideas play out at the speeds and energies and distances involved. Understanding what’s actually happening at the subtle edges of experiments — even seemingly simply ones — turns out to be very difficult to do.

How difficult? So much so that Albert Einstein himself made an error that is quite similar in some ways to the mistake Elburg suggests could have happend here.  In 1930, in one his famous arguments with Niels Bohr,  Einstein devised a thought experiment to show that it would be possible to measure a quantity to a finer level of accuracy than Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle permits.  Einstein’s argument seemed airtight, and according to an observer at the scene,

It was a real shock for Bohr…who, at first, could not think of a solution. For the entire evening he was extremely agitated, and he continued passing from one scientist to another, seeking to persuade them that it could not be the case, that it would have been the end of physics if Einstein were right; but he couldn’t come up with any way to resolve the paradox. I will never forget the image of the two antagonists as they left the club: Einstein, with his tall and commanding figure, who walked tranquilly, with a mildly ironic smile, and Bohr who trotted along beside him, full of excitement…The morning after saw the triumph of Bohr.

It turned out that Einstein had left one crucial physical idea out of his analysis;  he did not account for the effects of his own discovery, the general theory of relativity, on the behavior of the experimental procedure.  Once gravity was factored into the argument, the violation of quantum indeterminancy vanished.

That is simply to say that the neutrino experimentalists may well have made what seems from the sidelines like an obvious mistake.  But if Albert Einstein could fall prey to a similar kind of error, that should tell us all we need to know about how hard it is for any one person, or even one group, to think through the full subtlety of experience. Which is why science works the way it does, by continuous criticism and self-criticism.  As the neutrino story plays out, we’re watching how science ought to work.

Which, and finally we complete the long road home, is why science honestly done and described is vastly different as both a practical and a moral matter than the masked-as-science attacks on this mode of discovery that now dominate the thinking of one of the two major American political parties.

Images:  William Blake, When the Morning Stars Sang Together, 1820.

Jan Vermeer, The Astronomer, c. 1668

Albert Einstein was a Friend of Mine, and I Can Tell You, Representative: You Are No Albert Einstein*

April 15, 2011

From Think Progress (h/t Daily Kos) we learn that in the midst of yet another creationist eructation, a Tennessee state representative invokes the ghost of the good Dr. Einstein to defend the teaching of woo to the unwary:

Rep. FRANK NICELEY (R-Strawberry Fields): I think that if there’s one thing that everyone in this room could agree on, that would be that Albert Einstein was a critical thinker. He was a scientist. I think that we probably could agree that Albert Enstein was smarter than any of our science teachers in our high schools or colleges. And Albert Einstein said that a little knowledge would turn your head toward atheism, while a broader knowledge would turn your head toward Christianity.

I don’t have much truck with the argument from authority, but just this once, let me let it rip.

Dude:  I wrote the book here.**  Well, not the book, but one more in the seemingly limitless pile of Einsteiniana that has chased the poor man through the years.

So, a couple of things.  First:  Einstein himself was high school and college science teacher.  He taught secondary school briefly during the years between his graduation from Zurich’s ETH (1900) and the start of his job at the Swiss Patent Office (1902), tutoring a private student or two as well.  He became a university professor in 1908, and taught at that level until his move to Berlin in 1914.  He’s part of the set that the Representative — perhaps stunned by a too-prolonged exposure to tangerine skies — would seek to diss.

But the real howler, the grotesque lie, comes with the claim that Albert Einstein, famously Jewish and equally so an atheist by most senses of the word, would suggest that deep learning and understanding would make a person a Christian.

This is, of course, nonsense, and worse that that — a willful deception and one more example of the urge to invent a comforting falsehood when reality bites too hard.  Which sums up the whole modern GOP world view, sadly. (Cue the Rogers (kfMonkey) post in 3…2…1)

But for the record:  Albert Einstein disdained the notion of a personal god.  He was dismissive of god-talk in public affairs.  He saw nothing in the acquisition of knowledge that would tend one towards organized faith; quite the reverse.  He located the source of knowledge to be material experience, whose signals were to be processed by the 1200cc or so of very intricately organized meat we (most of us) keep in a round-ish vessel above our necks.

And just so we all get our fill of Einsteiniana, here are some supporting quotations:

In an autobiographical essay published in 1949, Einstein told of his loss of faith as a child:

“…through the reading of popular scientific books I soon reached the conviction that much in the stories of the Bible could not be true.  The consequence was a positively fanatic orgy of freethinking, coupled with the impression that youth is intentionally being deceived by the state through lies.” (in Paul Schilpp, ed. Albert Einstein,  Philosopher-Scientist, Open Court, 1949, p. 5)

Of the demand for a personal god, Einstein wrote in a letter to a banker in Colorado that

“I cannot conceive of a personal God who would directly influence the actions of individuals….” [taken from Alice Calaprice’s collection The Quotable Einstein, Princeton University Press, 1996 p. 146]

Of the presence of a god intervening in history, he wrote, famously and bluntly to a correspondent calling down divine wrath on the British during World War I:

“I see with great dismay that God punishes so many of His children for their ample folly, for which obviously only He himself can be held responsible…only His nonexistence can excuse him.” [AE to E. Mayer 2 January 1915 Collected Papers of AE vol VIII doc. 44]

Of the independence from divine fetters of human knowledge, he wrote,

“No idea is conceived in our mind independent of our five senses.” [From Quotable Einstein p. 154]

And on the claims to authority of religion in general and his own Jewish heritage in particular, the year before his death  he wrote this:

… The word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honourable, but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish. No interpretation no matter how subtle can (for me) change this. These subtilised interpretations are highly manifold according to their nature and have almost nothing to do with the original text. For me the Jewish religion like all other religions is an incarnation of the most childish superstitions.

Enough.  As you all know, no doubt, I’m of the John Foster Dulles school of blogging, but I think the point is clear. Rep. Niceley (R-Delusional) is an ignorant and/or deceitful man defending the indefensible by stealing the mantle of someone way too dead to respond for his own part.  Niceley does so to support exactly what Einstein would have both loathed and ridiculed.  The desire to live in the world one wishes for is human enough — pretty childish, I’d say, following my man Al here.  But the indulgence we give children does not extend to granting them power over anything that matters…

…which is why the current Republican Party must be not merely defeated, but destroyed and replaced.

Factio Grandaeva delenda est.

*Here I butcher what is still my favorite political debate moment of all time:

<div align=”center”></div>

**I kinda made the movie too — writing and jointly producing  this two hour NOVA biography.  Just sayin:  I bin around the Einstein block once or twice, you know.

Image:

Professor Einstein’s Visit to the United States“, The Scientific Monthly 12:5 (1921), 482-485, on p. 483.

Andrew Bacevich and Me On Tea Parties: Fringe Ephemera, or Brown Shirts Looking for their Couturier

September 15, 2010

Yesterday I attended a fascinating, depressing talk by Andrew Bacevich (live blogged!) in which he discussed the way the Washington consensus on national security is (a) disastrous and (b) perpetuates itself by trading on the myth of Washingtonian competence and the willingness of those beyond the beltway to defer to the presumed superior expertise and access to hidden information of the national security elite.

He made a powerful case, fleshed out in his new book, Washington Rules, positing that American national security thinking (such as it is) rests on two poles. First there is a “credo”:  that “the US and the US alone should lead, save, liberate, transform the world.” (Bacevich added yesterday that his choice of verbs was deliberate — they are all those used by American policymakers.) And then there is his trinity  — the idea that the US should maintain a global military presence, configured for power projection, and used for that purpose as needed.  (And yes, Bacevich at one point did refer to his atavistic commitment to the Catholic Church of his raising, as if you couldn’t tell…;)

Go check out the live blog if you want more, or better, buy his book.  My focus here is on an answer he gave to a question late in the session, on what he made of the meaning of the rise of Tea Party.  Here, as close to a transcript as I could make it, is his answer:

My bet is that the Tea Party is an epiphenomenon. Despite all the hooptedoo (sic) and the expectations that the Tea Party will have an impact on the elections this November — don’t think that they will be around much longer .  The substance is so thin, and is so based on anger that it isn’t enough to sustain a lasting organization.

I think that’s right…

…but not all that long ago I spent a number of years immersed in the history of 1920s Germany as I was writing Einstein in Berlin.  The book was, as advertised, an account of Einstein’s years in Germany’s capital — 1914-1932, but the question I was really trying to understand was how the 20th century went to hell, using Einstein as my witness at the epicenter of the disaster.

So when Bacevich argued that mere rage and the vague and incoherent sensation that the aggrieved Tea Partiers have somehow been done dirt is not enough to propel a political movement to lasting impact, it immediately reminded me of this:

Asked in December of 1930 what to make of the new force in German politics, he [Einstein] answered that  “I do not enjoy Herr Hitler’s acquaintance.  He is living on the empty stomach of Germany.  As soon as economic conditions improve, he will no longer be important.” Initially, he felt that no action at all would be needed to bring Hitler low.  He reaffirmed for a Jewish organization that the “momentarily desperate economic situation” and the chronic “childish disease of the Republic” were to blame for the Nazi success. “Solidarity of the Jews, I believe, is always called for,” he wrote, “but any special reaction to the election results would be quite inappropriate.”

We know how that turned out — but rather than just make the facile juxtaposition, I’d add that Einstein was almost right, or should have been right.

There was nothing in 1930 to suggest that Hitler was more than just one more raving rightist whom the establishment would dismiss as soon as conditions improved even slightly.  And in fact, through 1930 up to the end of 1932 there remained (IMHO) nothing inevitable about Hitler’s rise to power.  He benefitted from all kinds of chance circumstances, all the while riding (skillfully) the larger and overt waves of economic dislocation and political crisis.  He was certainly helped by the incompetence of his opponents.

But, certainly, even if the attempt to draw exact parallels across historical space and time never work, the lesson of end-stage Weimar Germany is that it is surprisingly easy in moments of crisis for seemingly fringe movements to rise — and that in their ascent, to seize power that could never be theirs in any ordinary time.  And once seized, authority feeds itself — we don’t need to Godwinize the argument to see that; the rapid accumulation of state power by the minority Bush II administration offers plenty of object demonstrations of what happens once folks, however thin or nonexistent their mandate, get their hands on the mechanical levers of power.

All of which is to say I believe we should not wait for the ordinary flow of events to sweep the Tea Party from the stage.  Active opposition is what’s needed, rather than the passive certainty that they’re crazy, wrong, and so openly whacked out that no one could possibly actually hand them the keys to the car.

Above all, what the example of the rise of the Nazis tells us is that rage is enormously powerful, and real hardship combined with a sense of class or race or identity-based grievance is yet more potent.  Tea Partiers, on all the evidence do believe that something has been stolen from them, and plenty of them, including one running for the United States Senate in the state of Nevada (with a reasonable shot at getting in) have suggested that violence to retrieve their God-given right to rule is acceptable, perhaps required.

Bacevich did speak to that as well.  Despite his sense (wrong, in my view) of the minor, temporary danger posed by the rise of the nativist, crazed right, he still  painted a picture of establishment GOPers as analogues (my interpretation) to the elite bosses of the German right:

You may have heard Trent Lott the other day — “We need to co-opt these people.”  And I think that reflects the cynicism of the Republican party –but the GOP is not going to become the Tea Party.

Recall the former Chancellor of Germany, Franz von Papen, crowing at the deal that brought him the Vice Chancellorship to Hitler’s ascension to the top spot in a short lived coalition, replying to charges that he had been had: “You are mistaken.  We have hired him.”

Oops.  Whatever else happens, I think Mike Castle would beg to differ with Mr. Lott.

Just one more thing:  I agree entirely with Bacevich when he said this:  ty ’20s:

You can’t divorce subject of race from all of this — and it is the most troubling part of our current politics.  It seems to me that too many of our fellow citizens refuse to accept the legitimacy of this presidency because it is unacceptable to have a black man as President.  Republicans would deny this, but I think they are lying through their teeth.  Race has not been left in our rear view mirror.

Well, yes.

And if we needed any more glances in the 1930s rearview mirror, then I’d suggest that we have a pretty good idea why in times of crisis demagogues go out of their way to paint as less than properly human a minority group that historically has been corralled into segregated settlements and has been both disdained and feared (by majorities wielding disproportionately more power than their scapegoats) — and we have more than just one precedent of what can happen when they do.

Bacevich bets that the Tea Party cocktail of rage, entitlement, ignorance, viciousness and the studied, cynical attempts at co-option will evaporate as times get less fraught.  I look at the next few months, and think of the three elections of 1932 in Germany, and wonder…if enough of the madness slips into Senate and House seats this fall, how sure can we be the rump of the GOP won’t follow?  And if times remain as hard as they may well through 2012?

Do you feel lucky today?

Well, do you?

I don’t.  I’m finally waking up; my personal enthusiasm gap has closed — I’ve hit the “donate” button three or four times today, and as the election gets closer, I’ll be heading up to New Hampshire to see what I can do to help Paul Hodes get over the hump.  I urge you all to act similarly as your wallets and geography permit.

Images:  Albert Einstein in 1929, playing a benefit concert in a synagogue in support of the Berlin Jewish community.  This is the only photograph I’ve been able to find (and I’ve looked) showing Einstein wearing a yarmulke.

Francisco de Goya, “Courtyard with Lunatics,” 1794

A Bit More Two Cultures Stuff: Arthur Waley/Heian Japan edition.

May 11, 2009

This is clearly the year for anniversaries.  There’s the Darwin stuff — his own bicentennial, and  The Origin’s 150th.  Then there is the telescope, being celebrated for its 400th anniversary in use as an astronomical tool.*  And then there is the one we just celebrated, the fiftieth anniversary of C.P. Snow’s Rede Lecture, titled “The Two Cultures,” delivered May 7, 1959.

I’ve been thinking about this one since I was asked to join a panel on “Science and/in Culture” at  Harvard’s “Common Cultures” meeting over May 7-8.  My talk was (mis)titled “Icons and Mentors,” and what I found as I put it together was a growing sense of dissatisfaction with the whole construct.  Snow himself provoked me with his famous disdain for those at a cocktail party who could not stump up the correct answer to his asking if they knew the second law of thermodynamics. **   But I think that there is more than irritation goading me; 25 years in the popularization of science business have sensitized me to “you ought to know this” approach to the problem.

Finally, doing some 3:00 a.m. insomnia reading a week or so ago, I came across a passage in an on-reflection-not-that-unlikely a source which captured some of my discomfort both with Snow’s formulation of his problem, and of its subsequent appropriation by those fighting all kinds of battles loosely construed as pitting a scientific worldview with a presumed un or anti-scientific one.   A most unlikely (seeming) source gave me comfort that my belief that icons — symbols, images — do indeed have great effect.

The work in question is Arthur Waley’s translation of and commentary on The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon. By way of background Waley is perhaps a type specimen of the kind of literary mandarin that so worried Snow.  A student of classic Chinese and Japanese literature,  he was the premier translator to bring many of the major works in both languages into English versions intended to reach lay as well as specialist audiences.  His translations have gone out of style — he emphasized literary style over strict fidelity on most but not all projects — but they are powerful, and they were enormously influential from the twenties to the sixties.  He was by an odd coincidence a cousin of mine, though I never met him and was just eight when he died. (though that fact explains why I have a pretty good collection of his works ready to be reached for in the evil corners of a white night.)

The passage that caught my eye was one in which Waley was trying to give his audience — more literary mandarin types, presumably — some sense of the habits of mind in Sei Shonagon’s society.  He emphasized that tenth century Japan was a place, at least in its elite corners, concerned with surface appearance, expression.  But if the reader detected too close a resemblence to elite conversation in post World War I England, he or she would be mistaken:

The other aspects of their intellectual passivity – the absence of mathematics, science , philosophy (even such amateur speculation as amused the Romans was entirely unknown) – may not seem at first sight to constitute an important difference [from Waley’s Britain].  Scientists and philosophers, it is true, exist in modern Europe.  But to most of us their pronouncements are as unintelligible as the incantations of a Lama; we are mere drones, slumbering amid the clastter of thoughts and contrivances that we do not understand and could still less ever have created. If the existence of contemporary research had no influence on those capable of understanding it, we should indeed be in much the same position as the people of Heian.  But, strangely enough, something straggles through; ideas which we do not completely understand modify our perceptions and hence refashion our thoughts to such an extend that the society lady who said ‘Einstein means so much to me’ was expressing  a profound truth.

A profound truth that Waley, as unthermodynamical a character as ever lived, had no hesitation acknowledging.  This quote provided me with the start of a train of thought with which I’m not yet done.  On Friday, I talked of my growing sense of the importance of the making of icons of science.  Einstein is one, certainly.   And his significance in Waley’s time and to a great extent still is that even thought the physical sciences have too abstract, too complicated, too mathematical for lay audiences at least since the time of James Clerk Maxwell, Einstein exists as a constant talisman that this branch of science has in fact transformed our (one, popular) culture’s understanding of the power of science to make sense of the world.

Some of this in Einstein’s case is specifically a matter of timing, with his emergence right after the devastation of World War I.  Some of it, obviously lies with the acknowledged cosmic importance of is discoveries (a new theory of gravity, the first since Newton’s).  Some is down to the strangeness of his findings (the NY Times’s famous headline:  “Stars not where they’re supposed to be”), and the evocative, seemingly intelligible language in which his ideas were expressed (curved space, warped time, light has mass, there is a fourth dimension).  Some of it may be due simply to his camera-friendly looks, wild hair, benign smile and all.  But for all the particular reasons that Einstein became the public face of science when a Curie or a Bohr did not, the fact remains that an unbelievably potent cultural icon exists, the personification of human potential, of our capacity to penetrate deep mysteries.  It made science important, even if its specific practices and outcomes remained impenetrable.

There are obviously downsides to such enshrinement, and Einstein himself was clear on that point.  But from where I sit, or at least spoke a few days ago, it seems to me that I and many others and perhaps even C.P. Snow himself have been sweating a bit too hard over the culture wars.

Science does permeate popular culture, not always in ways that we love, but there it is still.  More important:  the enemies of reason, and they certainly exist, seem to me to have already surrendered at the moment they argue their cases in our language.  When ID’ers make claims of scientific legitimacy, e.g., they’ve already acknowledged the primacy of scientific argument as the arbiter of success or failure.  On that battleground, science wins.

And in that context, it may well be that the creation and renewal of icons of science — not limited to people, by any means — are as important a transformative agent in culture as any number of natural laws memorized for use at Oxbridge evening parties.

*It’s a bit of a tricky date, as the telescope was actually invented no later than 1608. Galileo certainly started to use his telescope to examine the night skies in 1609, but I don’t know that anyone is certain no one else had preceded him.  The real significant date, in my view, is 1610, when Galileo published Sidereus Nuncius, his account of his observations, including the nights of work that yielded the visual proof that Jupiter is attended by “planets” of its own — the four Galilean moons whose existence provided powerful support for the Copernican world view.  In science, an unpublished observation may as well not exist, so to my mind, telescopic astronomy begins at the moment Galileo announces its first compelling results to a wide audience.

**You can’t break even.  Or formally, “the entropy of an isolated system which is not in equilibrium will tend to increase over time, approaching a maximum value at equilibrium.”

Images:  Jeff Hester/P. Scowen, “Pillars of Creation” detail of the Eagle Nebula, Hubble Space Telescope, 1995

drawing by Kikuchi Yosai, “Sei Shonagon” 19th c.

Albert Einstein and the Political Implications of Sockless Activism

January 8, 2009

Over at Balloon Juice, new co-blogger DougJ has hit on the Washington Village People™ for their obsession with spurious class/”real people” markers.  His target, the notion that “doesn’t wear socks” is a useful shorthand for measuring the clueless/pseud function level fo someone.  See this post and the follow-up here.*

Of course, there is a history-of-science angle on this.  However else you might want to characterize Albert Einstein, he wasn’t clueless.  Sockless yes, by deep conviction and long practice.  There is a reason that this image is usually cropped as at the link.  Einstein may have dressed mostly unexceptionally for the ceremony of his taking the oath to become an American citizen, but what the missing feet would tell you is that it was naked feet stuffed into his shoes.

All of which is to say that DougJ has got it right.  Only stupid people think that fashion sense is a reliable marker of anything beyond fashion sense.  Or to put it another way.  I’ll bet Philipp Lenard wore socks every day of his proper Herr Doktor Professor life; that still leaves him a Nazi and an anti-Semitic idiot (however skilled an experimentalist he was in his youth), while my man Albert is … Einstein, bare feet and all.

Image:  Vincent van Gogh, “A Pair of Shoes,” 1886.

Science Bloggers vs. Science Writers Round 2: It’s Just A Theory dept.

December 28, 2008

This may be a true blogospheric case of a day late and a dollar short, but I’d like to pursue a few more threads drawn from the kerfluffle Bora set off with this post.  I want to get into the meat of what Bora wrote — especially in two areas, but before I get there I wanted to take a swipe at what I see as a dangerously mistaken notion put forward by one of Bora’s sciblings in the intitial wave of responses to the initial post.

This is what Ed Yong had to say in an otherwise smart piece that offered some good advice to scientists confronting the media:

…the majority of journalists are not seekers of the truth; they serve at the all-important altar of “The Story” and the ultimate goal of The Story is to keep the reader/listener/viewer entranced with it from opening word to final syllable. It’s entertainment…

There is a critical error in this passage, and it is one that I have seen repeated again and again by scientists (and others, to be sure) for whom the complexity of their own work blinds them to the technical hurdles faced in other fields.  (That this happens within science before it even makes its way out to confound science/rest-of-the-world interactions is the point made by Greg Laden in the post on which I blogged below.)

The error lies with the claim that the goal of communicating in story-form is “entertainment.”  This has essentially the same affect for a writer as saying that evolution is “only a theory” has for anyone who knows anything about that the science of life.

Entertainment occurs in the presence of a well-made story, certainly, but that pleasure derives from success at the primary goal of story:  engagement.  Ed has it right in the sentence before:  the function of story form is to enable the author to hold a reader’s attention to the end of what he or she is trying to say — and to do so in a way that will enable that audience to understand and remember whatever it was the writer was trying to communicate.

Not to go all evolutionary psychology on y’all (though that is a tale-telling discipline as ever was) but story structure is something that human beings seem to rely on to frame meaning and to construct memory.  I’m not versed enough in the neuroscience to pull up chapter and verse here, (but see, e.g., some of Jonah Lehrer’s writing for a variety approaches to connect brain function and human culture)  but it is clear anthropologically that stories are the ways human beings have organized their knowledge for a very long time.

None of this is remotely new, nor I suspect, any surprise to scientists reading this; science is, pace Ed, (and perhaps Bora?) a culture deeply steeped in story telling from the informal  level of conjecture in the lab or seminar up to and including (some but not all) of its most formal communication.  A couple of examples:

Albert Einstein’s first relativity paper, “On the Electrodynamics of Moving Objects,” begins with a little story: consider this, Albert writes, this little mystery.  According to what we now say we know, if a magnet moves through a conductor, an electric field is formed that produces a current in the wire.  If, on the other hand, the conductor moves while the magnet remains at rest, no field is formed, “while in the conductor an electromotive force will arise, to which in itself there does not correspond any energy, but which ….gives rise to electrical currents.” (Collected Papers of Albert Einstein, vol. 2, English translation, p. 140.)

This little anecdote is a story in itself, of the “Let me tell you something strange” variety, almost a tall-tale.  It is also what the screenwriting types call the inciting incident — a mystery or a problem to be solved through a series of narrative incidents, the sequence of mathematical derivations that Einstein pursues to reach his extraordinary narrative (and physical) conclusions.

Charles Darwin explicitly framed his great work, The Origin of Species, as an argument and nothing like  a novel, but it is an essay permeated with stories from the descent of fancy pigeons from the rock dove, to the narrative of sedimentation that underpins the assertion that the geological record is imperfect, to the hypothetical narrative here, just a few pages before the fabled “tangled bank” scene:

When we no longer look at an organic being as a savage looks at a ship, as at something wholly beyond his comprehension; when we regard every production of nature as one which has had a history; when we contemplate every complex structure and instinct as the summing up of many contrivances, each useful to the possessor, nearly in the same way as when we look at any great mechanical invention as the summing up of the labour, the experience, the reason, and even the blunders of numerous workmen; when we thus view each organic being, how far more interesting, Ispeak from experience, will the study of natural history become!

Last, I promise):  I’ll be publishing this June my account of Isaac Newton’s work at the Royal Mint, chasing counterfeiters and helping to create the modern financial world (thanks, Isaac).  Along the way, I read Principia, and while no one has ever accused Newton of ripping prose style, I found that when you read that book as a book, and not as a series of demonstrations, Book Three, “The System of the World,” has a narrative structure that is integral to the argument Newton was trying to make:  that his new mechanics extended through the entire universe, to its infinite, and to human senses inaccessible, extent.  He did so by the way he organized that last section — which takes on the recognizable form of an epic journey.

But all that, of course, was then.  What about now?  Modern scientific communication is a highly formalized and artificial genre, of course.  No one reading this has to be told that. But story still creeps in, as it must, given the way people tell themselves stories about what they do as the ideas frozen into papers take shape.  The issue is not the data, but, as in the dispute with which Bora led off his original post, in the interpretation of whatever has been measured or observed.  For interpretation, read story, as in what story does my experiment tell me?; as in, who has the better story here?  Darwin again:

Authors of the highest eminence seem to be fully satisfied with the view that each species has been independently created. To my mind it accords better with what we know of the laws impressed on matter by the Creator, that the production and extinction of the past and present inhabitants of the world should have been due to secondary causes, like those determining the birth and death of the individual.

Is Darwin an entertainer?  Well, yes he is, if you have a certain cast of mind.  But is that pleasure, the thrill at a well turned thought, leading you just where the writer wants you to go, his primary ambition and accomplishment?

One last thought.  The real conflict between science writers and their scientist-sources does not seem to me to be the question of accuracy.  It really lies in the fact that writers and their subjects disagree on who owns the story being told.   For scientists acting as sources, it ain’t theirs.

That gets to the meat of what Bora was arguing, that the emergence of the blogosphere and of the communications technology behind it in principle will eliminate much or all of the need for intermediaries like science writers.  I think he’s wrong, mostly, and I’ll take that up in another piece.  But in the meantime, I’ll leave you with an anecdote that illustrates the underlying tension.  A few years ago I wrote a piece that became a cover story for Discover on some of the issues raised in the race to construct the next generation of extremely large optical telescopes.

In that piece I focused on one instrument, the Giant Magellan Telescope, for two reasons.  The first was that the GMT group had decided to start building their hardware long before they had the full sum in hand to construct the entire observatory — and I could use the casting of the first of seven mirror segments as my path into the subject.  The second was that my story was not simply about building big ‘scopes, but focused instead on the questions raised around the choices of dozens of people working on that and other similar projects to commit enormous chunks of their careers to such an uncertain goal.  Think LHC, think the James Webb Space Telescope, think, even, of the human genome project at its inception, think of the GMT’s competitor project, the Thirty Meter Telescope or TMT.

And that’s where the problem emerged.  I conveyed that theme through the stories of a half dozen different people working on the GMT, and those mini-stories occupied most of my account.  I did interview both Richard Ellis, of Caltech, and Jerry Nelson of the University of California, Santa Cruz, the two leaders of the TMT project.  I told them both up front that the emphasis of my article would lie with their rivals, but that I wanted to make sure to include enough of what they had to say so that my readers would know that there was more than one project striving after the same goal.

And that’s what I wrote.  And Richard and Jerry were both upset, and for good reason from their perspective, and they told me so very clearly.

That good reason:  there was and remains a public and private competition between the two projects for funding, in which a sense of inevitability, of unchecked progress, was very important.  An article that featured one project much more than the other was an advantage to one side, (and the TMT people were already aggrieved after Dennis Overbye published his New York Times account of the GMT mirror casting without any significant mention of the TMT folks.)

But I wrote back that, in effect, they had no cause for complaint — for two reasons.  One was that I had a story I was trying to tell, and it was about one aspect of life in science, not simply about one machine or another; I may or may not have succeeded in telling that story, but that I didn’t tell a different story hardly seemed (or seems) to me an adequate critique.

The other was that I am interested and have been for a long time in the interplay between instruments and discovery, especially in astronomy, and I planned to keep on covering what is a truly remarkable story of transformational technology unwrapping the universe.  I had every intention of doing a TMT story as soon as there was (a) enough time passed to allow the market for big telescope stories by Tom Levenson to recover, and (b) there was some kind of a hook to hang on which to hang the piece.

I haven’t written that piece yet.  Partly, I’ve been busy; new job, new book, kids, life, twelve inches of snow to shovel last weekend, all of the above. And partly, this brutal fact:  there are many more good stories to tell in the world than I or anyone has time to write.  If I or any writer get a rocket from some source about the wreckage they’ve made of some story, I don’t say I’ll never write about that person’s work again.  But I’m human enough to hesitate to pick up the phone to call up such an aggrieved soul.  Other things come along, other pebbles on the shore catch the light and grab my magpie’s interest.

The moral:  if you are upset that the story you would have told was not, and you do not choose to write it yourself, then think about how you might want to convey your disappointments and your hopes to the offending story-teller.  And as for me, this new-year’s resolution.  I’ll give Jerry a call this January and find out how goes the TMT.  (Better than the GMT, I think, given that Gordon Moore’s foundation decided to give the California-based project a ton of bucks that the GMT consortium has yet to match.)

Images:  Pierre-Auguste Renoir, “Portrait of Jean and Geneviève Caillebotte,” 1895. Source:  The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH.

Jan Matejko, “The Astronomer Copernicus in Conversation with God,” 1872.

Quote for the Day: Stephen Pinker/Albert Einstein edition

November 20, 2008

It could be just me, but I ain’t so sure about this:

Some people raise an eyebrow at linguists’ practice of treating their own sentence judgments as objecitve empirical data.  The danger is that linguist’s pet theory could unconsiously warp his or her judgments.  It’s a legiimtate worry, but in practice linguistic judgments can go a long way.  One of the perquisites of research on basic cognitive processes is that you always have easy access to a specimin of the species you study, namely, yourself.  When I was a student in a perception lab I asked my advisor when we sould stop generting tones to listen to and start doing the research. He correcte me:  listening to the tones was research, as far as he was concerned, since he wasconfident that if a sequence sounded a certain way to him, it would sound that way to every other normal member of the species.  As a sanity check (and to satisfy journal referees) we would eventualy pay students to listen to the sounds and press buttons according to what they heard, but the results always ratified what we could hear with our own ears.  I’ve followed the same strategy in psycholinguistics, and in dozens of studies I’ve found that the average ratings from volunteers have alsways lined up with the original subjective judgments of the linguists.  (Stephen Pinker, The Stuff of Thought, 2007, p. 34)

I know (or I think I do) what Pinker is trying to say here.  You can’t even begin to formulate an idea without having some idea of what you’re looking at or for.  Professional experience and a depth of knowledge of other work in the field do count.  One’s own perceptions are real, and can (must) guide experimental design and interpretation.

But at the same time, I fear Pinker’s diminishment of the possibility of observer bias, of the fact that people have commitments both conscious and unconscious to a given idea or expected outcome.

That such expectations can deeply affect one’s ability to understand what your measurements actually are saying to you is a matter of historical fact — and this kind of observer bias can strike even the brightest of investigators, even in fields seemingly safely far removed from the subjectivity and noise that accompanies any attempt to penetrate human mental life.  Peter Galison has dissected the famous (among a certain crowd) case of Albert Einstein’s misplaced confidence in the interpretation of his collaboration with W. de Haas on an experiment to explore properties of what became known as the Einstein-de Haas effect.

The experiments the two conducted did advance the understanding of the magnetic behavior of electrons, though a proper interpretation of what was going on had to wait (in a familiar trope for early 20th century physics) for quantum mechanical intervention.  But the point here is that Einstein had made a theoretical calculation to determine the expected value of the ratio of the magnetic moment to the angular momentum of electrons travelling in their closed orbits around atomic nuclei.  In his calculation, he derived a value of one.

Then he and de Haas performed the measurement, using a delicate and complicated experimental set up. Sure enough, they were able to extract data that produced a value for the quantity to be confirmed of 1.02.   Einstein was aware that this looked almost too sweet — he wrote that the “good agreement may be due to chance” — but the coincidence of expectation and result was too much for him to ignore.

Unfortunately, subsequent experiments, and then the theoretical description in quantum mechanical terms showed the correct value to be two.

The moral?  Pace Pinker, while judgments by practitioners immersed in their fields do and should go a long way, past (and future) performance is no guarantee that observer bias ain’t about to bite you in the ass right now.   (Say I, ex cathedra — that is, someone whose last lab experience involved hideous acts performed on a frog — see E. M. Fogarty, “Anatomy of a Frog,” Journal of Irreproducable Results, 1963, 11, 65.)

That said — I’m well stuck into The Stuff of Thought and am enjoying it greatly.  I just got stuck for a moment on what might be the scientist-popularizer’s equivalent of an episode of irrational exuberance.