The Return of the Natural Philosophers

Whilst scurrying through the intertubes, I ran across a post entitled Should We Ban Physics? at Overcoming Bias.

At the recent Global Catastrophic Risks conference, someone proposed a policy prescription which, I argued, amounted to a ban on all physics experiments involving the production of novel physical situations – as opposed to measuring existing phenomena. You can weigh a rock, but you can’t purify radium, and you can’t even expose the rock to X-rays unless you can show that exactly similar X-rays hit rocks all the time. So the Large Hadron Collider, which produces collisions as energetic as cosmic rays, but not exactly the same as cosmic rays, would be off the menu.

I think the context of worrying about the end of the world is misplaced. What science could you do if you were limited to strictly observing natural phenomenon, and couldn’t fashion experiments that involved “novel physical situations?” Astronomy and biology, if you were doing them last century, or even earlier — can you even make a lens under such a guideline?

It’s unfortunate the details were no forthcoming; there were some physicists at this conference and this is an interpretation of the proposal. But it sounds like a policy suggestion made by someone who doesn’t have experience in doing science.

From a summary of some of the discussions, though, it seems like there was a whole lot of this genre of conjecture with a hefty dose of science fiction along with the science.

They envision desktop nanofactories into which people feed simple raw inputs and get out nearly any product they desire. The proliferation of such nanofactories would end scarcity forever. “We can’t expect to have only positive outcomes without mitigating negative outcomes,” cautioned Treder.

What kind of negative outcomes? Nanofactories could produce not only hugely beneficial products such as water filters, solar cells, and houses, but also weapons of any sort. Such nanofabricated weapons would be vastly more powerful than today’s. Since these weapons are so powerful, there is a strong incentive for a first strike. In addition, an age of nanotech abundance would eliminate the majority of jobs, possibly leading to massive social disruptions. Social disruption creates the opportunity for a charismatic personality to take hold. “Nanotechnology could lead to some form of world dictatorship,” said Treder. “There is a global catastrophic risk that we could all be enslaved.”

I think this is akin to the stance that nanotechnology is morally unacceptable. The steps between where we are and where would have to be for this to be true is huge (and a similar stance is taken with AI); the scenario is proposed seemingly without any regard for how difficult it is to predict the future of technology .

New Model for Science Education

New University Education Model Needed by Carl Wieman

As knowledge and population grew, the apprentice model expanded into the university with an increasing number of students for each expert, in order to pass along information more efficiently. The lecture format predominant today began long ago, before the invention of the printing press, as an efficient way to pass along information and basic skills such as writing and arithmetic in the absence of written texts. The economies of scale led to this expanding to the current situation of a remote lecturer often addressing hundreds of largely passive students.

It’s unclear that this model was ever truly effective for science education and vast societal and technological changes over the past several decades make it clearly unsuitable for science education today.

Geeks Anonymous

Chad was wondering what to blog about, and then tapped into the mother lode, judging by the number of responses. The Innumeracy of Intellectuals

I’m a professor at a liberal arts college, putting me solidly in the “Intellectual” class, and there’s a background assumption that anyone with as much education as I have will know something about history and philosophy and literature and art and classical music. I read enough to have literature covered, even if my knowledge is a little patchy, and I took enough classes in college to have a rough grasp of history and philosophy, but art and music are hopeless.

I admit it: I share similar characteristics with Chad. Even though I’m not awash in liberal-arts faculty, I think it’s support-group time.

Hi, I’m Tom, and I’m not a ‘real’ intellectual.

Hi, Tom.

I didn’t take art history or music appreciation in college. I like a few classical pieces of music, but my favorites came from watching Bugs Bunny — not exactly the intellectual pedigree. I tried defending my lack of classical music in my collection in college by pointing out that I liked Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture — the response was “Who doesn’t?”

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Serious Discussion

Today’s Non-Sequitur

Quick thoughts: yes, it would fire. As Tommy Lee Jones reminds us, pistols (not just Glocks) can fire underwater, if you’re stupid enough to do so (like you’re performing DIY Shock wave lithotripsy) — they carry their own oxidant.

The bullet would travel faster, too. There would be less drag on the bullet, so it would not slow down as much as it does at one atmosphere. The muzzle velocity would only be epsilon faster, but the overall speed at some arbitrary distance would be higher.

I don’t understand why Danae doesn’t find that interesting.

(Blam! and Ping! not really happening, of course, in that rarefied atmosphere)

Update: the speed to orbit near the surface of the moon is about 1680 m/s. Not achievable with a pistol, but within the capabilities of some advanced weaponry. Escape speed (1.41 times higher) would require a Bull-like supergun.

Pick, Pick, Pick

I spied a nit at which I must pick. This is something that’s become ingrained in certain science discussions, one of those innocent things that may or may not propagate a misconception and I’m sure it rarely causes an eyebrow to be raised, but, dammit, someone’s wrong on the internet.

Someone will tell me that energy is obtained because you’ve broken a chemical bond. It happens often enough that it’s not worth mentioning where I saw it (OK, OK, I’ll talk. It was Schwartz Matt) But seriously, it’s something you’ll run across a lot if you read stories about chemical processes and energy.

It’s one of those things that can be true but isn’t generally true. And the overall implication — that there is energy stored in the bonds which is released when you break them — is flat-out wrong.

Forming a bound state releases energy. Breaking apart that bound state requires the addition of energy. We can quantify the tightness of the bond by how much energy is involved, and that’s what we do with the enthalpy of formation: you have a baseline system — the free gases and atoms with which you start — which has (what we define as) zero energy. If you want to go from one bound system to another, you will release the difference in the enthalpies, because energy is conserved. (And if you look at more complex systems you involve the more and more complicated energies you find in thermodynamics) But the release of energy is in the formation of new, tighter bonds that are present in the products — that’s where the energy comes from. Burning those hydrocarbons is releasing energy not because you are breaking the bonds with the carbon and hydrogen, but because the bonds with the oxygen are stronger, and forming them releases the energy.

Faith and Ignorance

Interesting link over at physics and physicists (rather than the title being a misquote from “Bull Durham.”) Is Faith The Enemy Of Science?

Richard MacKenzie of the University of Montreal has written a rather thought-provoking and lengthy article as a rebuttal to a talk given by Lawrence Krauss. In it, he is disputing Krauss’s assertion that:

Faith is not the enemy.
Ignorance is the enemy.

The linked article is pretty good.

The bottom line is that direct observation shows that faith does not obstruct scientists from
doing science. That said, there are many who portray themselves as scientists who, due to
their faith, are doing a brand of science which is an indignity to the word. I have in mind
particularly those whose principal goal in science is to advance a faith-based agenda. One
must wonder whether these individuals, who probably have a reasonable amount of scientific
talent, might not be doing respectable science if their scientificity had not been stronger, or
their religiosity weaker.

Does faith obstruct non-scientists from learning science? I would argue that it does, for
several reasons.

On that point I quite agree. Anyone who uses their ideology to dictate what answers are acceptable isn’t doing science. Ignorance isn’t the enemy, in the sense that it is an opposing entity; the goal of teaching science (and education in general) is the eradication of ignorance. Ignorance can be fixed as long as there is no active plan to preserve it. Faith, the unsubstantiated belief in something, does indeed preserve ignorance if it prevents you from considering evidence and scientific explanations.

Well worth a read.

All Thumbs

The balcony is closed

Roger Ebert reminisces about Gene Siskel, following the announcement that Ebert & Roeper were leaving the show.

The first time they appeared on the Johnny Carson show:

We were scared out of our minds. We’d been briefed on likely questions by one of the show’s writers, but moments before airtime he popped his head into the dressing room and said, “Johnny may ask you for some of your favorite movies this year.”

Gene and I stared at each other in horror. “What was one of your favorite movies this year?” he asked me. “Gone With the Wind,” I said. The Doc Severinsen orchestra had started playing the famous “Tonight Show” theme. Neither one of us could think of a single movie. Gene called our office in Chicago. “Tell me some movies we liked this year,” he said. This is a true story.

I liked their — unlike everybody else, who would just criticize, they’d bother to tell you if they liked the movie, even if it wasn’t great cinema.