Really, Nature?

Quantum mechanics flummoxes physicists again

If you ever want to get your head around the riddle that is quantum mechanics, look no further than the double-slit experiment. This shows, with perfect simplicity, how just watching a wave or a particle can change its behaviour. The idea is so unpalatable to physicists that they have spent decades trying to find new ways to test it. The latest such attempt, by physicists in Europe and Canada, used a three-slit version — but quantum mechanics won out again.

Flummoxed? Unpalatable?

It looks like a neat experiment. Maybe I’m missing something, but I don’t understand how the experimenters were flummoxed (the results agree with QM), nor do I see what they were getting at with the mention of relativity. And I don’t think I’ve found which-path behavior to be unpalatable, but then, I always used chocolate-covered gratings.

Celebrating the Enabler of Cheap Laser Cooling and Trapping

Landmarks: Invention of the CD-Player Laser

The invention of the semiconductor laser took lasers from the scientist’s lab and action hero’s arsenal to every living room DVD player and grocery store scanner. It began with the serendipitous discovery in 1962 that gallium arsenide could be made to produce surprisingly intense light. Later that year, the first gallium arsenide laser was reported in Physical Review Letters. The modern descendants of that device are the tiny lasers that abound in countless modern appliances.

… and atomic physics labs throughout the world.

All of Steve Jobs's Men

Those who visit the tech world are probably aware of the iPhone4 antenna issues and all the media hoopla surrounding it. I have no real dog in the fight, horse in this race or cliché in this idiom. I don’t own an iPhone and I’m not shilling for Apple. But it pains me to see a bunch of tech-savvy people making crappy emotional arguments about something that should be quantifiable,and/or making crappy technical arguments because they don’t look at what the data are (or aren’t) telling them.

Apple had to respond, of course, and there are a number of articles out there explaining the business psychology of this; in some sense it’s already too late — once the idea that Al Gore invented the internet is out there, actual facts will do very little to change things, so the undercurrent that the phone is a dud cannot truly be slain (the best you can do is a flesh wound). There is no Vorpal blade for persistent myths of the internet. Some people will believe that because they heard it, and others will repeat it because they love to hate Apple. But you have to try, and so a solution was proposed. Free bumpers for everyone. Feel free to discuss whether Steve Jobs was not apologetic enough to suit you, or whatever.

That’s not my point.

My point is that people kept making this out as a technical problem, when all along it has been a PR problem, and a lot of people not employed by Apple kept insisting otherwise (except that perception is reality, hence the solution mentioned above). I’ve seen it called a design flaw and also called a defect. The latter is flat-out wrong — the problem is not with the phone itself being faulty, as if swapping it out for another phone would solve the issue. The problem is user-specific. Is it a design flaw? Yes and no. It is, in the sense that there is degradation in performance that can be avoided with a technical fix, but then you have to call any sub-optimal performance a design flaw. You have to insist that cheap technology suffers from a design flaw if it doesn’t work as well as a more expensive technology, and I think that this is not what we mean by flaw. It is a trade-off, a natural and expected offshoot from optimizing on multiple variables, including price. You want better performance? Spend a few extra bucks. In what industries is that not the case?

The real metric for seeing if this is a “flaw” is to do a proper analysis of performance and the analysis, for the most part, was absolute crap. Most of it concentrated on how much the signal dropped when you held the phone the “wrong” way, and went no further. BFD. That’s a science fair project. When you attenuate a signal, it goes down. When you short out an antenna (or at least change the capacitance or change the resistance of it, whatever was actually happening), you will lose signal. What the analyses lacked is any sort of context for these numbers, and while careful data-taking is important, the real tough part about science is in proper interpretation — figuring out what the data mean. And few of the stories did that. Diminished signal is not proper context, because all phones do that when you cover the antenna. All that these numbers show is that the phone works better when you don’t cover the antenna. Confirming this is not going to get you to Sweden.

You can’t compare it to a different phone on another network, because everyone knows AT&T sucks. Their network has made them infamous, like El Guapo. The real comparison of any validity would be to properly compare the phone to the one it replaced. Because the real question is this: Is the new one better? I haven’t done any exhaustive cataloging of all the stories on the iphone4, but of the dozens I’ve read, I have seen just one technical analysis that addresses this (though there are undoubtedly others). The conclusion? The new phone holds calls at a lower signal strength than the old one.

The other bad comparison was the number of drpped calls form the iPhone 3GS and iPhone 4. The new phone drops more calls — that’s bad, right? What if I told you that I did a survey and found 25 people liked a name brand of soft drink, but another one found that 100 people liked Crappa-Cola? Do those numbers mean anything? What if I had to survey 10,000 people to find the 100 who liked Crappa-Cola, but only 50 to get the result for the name brand? The numbers would be meaningless as a direct comparison — we have to normalize the responses. That’s just basic science analysis. So a direct comparison of the numbers of dropped calls is just as meaningless without knowing that we are similarly normalizing the data.

When John Gruber of Daring Fireball reported those numbers, I sent an email to point this out to him. I had to mention that this isn’t an Apples-to-Apples comparison (and, of course, I’m using the obvious pun, because that’s what I do. It was low-hanging fruit. Damn, I did it again) I wrote, in part,

What is important is the comparison to the previous version of the phone: does the iPhone4 drop calls that the 3 or 3GS does not? And the answer that seems to be, for the most part, “no.” It’s hard to tell, because most of the Geekmedia aren’t looking at it that way, and much of the remaining evidence is anecdotal.

In Antennagate Bottom Line, you mention the comparison of numbers of dropped calls, but I argue that this is not the right metric. What one needs to know is if the iPhone4 drops a call that would not be dropped by a 3GS. If the additional drops are in areas that the 3GS would have never connected in the first place, then the statistic isn’t telling us what everyone claims it is. All that would mean is that there is a large drop rate in regions that were previously regarded as dead zones. That’s an improvement, not a regression.

Without that information, one does not truly know how to interpret the statistic.

And not only did he made a post addressing that, he frikkin’ quoted my email! (and this little ego-boost is the whole reason for finally writing this up. I’ve been quoted by Gruber and linked to by Kottke. In your face, world!)

You May Well Ask What It Is

Over at Starts With a Bang, Ethan has a posted How Good is Your Theory? Open Thread I, in which he categorizes the spectrum of theories, from Scientific Law at one end, through Validated, Speculative and on to Ruled Out at the other end. My reaction is like that of Mammy’s in Gone With the Wind: it ain’t fittin’. It ain’t fittin’, it ain’t fittin’, it just ain’t fittin’.

First of all, theories do not grow up to be laws, which is one way this spectrum would be interpreted.

Scientific Law: This is really an elite category, reserved for the most thoroughly tested, rock-solid theories and ideas that we have. These are theories that have stood the test of time, as well, making many new predictions that have all been confirmed experimentally and observationally, where there’s practically no room for dispute other than making extensions or variations to the law itself.

If there are variations, then how rock-solid is it? No, that’s not the criterion. A law denotes a straightforward mathematical relationship, i.e. an equation. A law is closer to being synonymous with equation than it is with rock-solid theory. We have Ohm’s law, but we also have non-ohmic devices. We have Newton’s law of gravitation, but we know that fails under some conditions, and is just a subset of relativity. Laws have limits to their applicability.

We also have far-reaching and very well-established theories that are not called laws, simply because there is no simple equation associated with it. The theory of evolution is no less well-established than many laws that exist, for example. And this is a common debating tactic, to denigrate the theory of evolution because it isn’t a law, to make it sound like it has less support and more open to doubt.

The second objection I have is that the spectrum is actually two-dimensional. Ethan mentions how some speculative theories are not testable, or at least not currently testable. If it isn’t testable it really shouldn’t be considered a theory at all, but even ignoring that issue, this points toward the idea that there is a spectrum of the quality of a theory as well. Some theories are better than others, because they do a better job of precisely predicting behavior and/or explain a wider range of phenomena. Some very elegant theories are on the “Ruled Out” side of things, because they were the proverbial beautiful theory slain by the ugly fact, but by virtue of being testable, they were still higher quality than some other “theories” that cannot be (easily) checked. Phlogiston was a better-constructed theory than Brontosauruses being thin at one end, thicker in the middle, and thinner again at the other end, even though the former is ruled out and the latter is true except for a naming issue. The Balmer, Lyman, Paschen et. al series of Hydrogen are less complete than the Rydberg formula and Bohr model, and the Bohr model is tossed into the “ruled out” heap in favor of quantum mechanics. So the breadth of a theory’s reach has to be considered as well — a model that explains one thing is not as highly regarded as one that encompasses many phenomena.

The true spectrum is in the amount of evidence which supports the theory, weighed against evidence that contradicts it. Keeping in mind, of course, that contradiction comes in two flavors: those which kill the theory outright, and those which narrow the boundaries of the theory or require it to be modified. The spectrum of quality is similar to the high jump or pole vault — set the bar at some level of prediction/falsification, and then see if you can make it over the top. Nobody will be impressed by a theory that makes only obvious predictions that are trivially fulfilled (OK, excepting the fans of John Edward and his ilk, who are utterly impressed by “You’ve lost someone recently” at a meeting of people wanting to talk to recently-departed loved ones). If you don’t make predictions, you don’t get to play.

Aaaayyyy! Fonzie Weighs in on Global Warming

Installing cool roofs.

Global Model Confirms: Cool Roofs Can Offset Carbon Dioxide Emissions and Mitigate Global Warming

Because white roofs reflect far more of the sun’s heat than black ones, buildings with white roofs will stay cooler. If the building is air conditioned, less air conditioning will be required, thus saving energy. Even if there is no air conditioning, the heat absorbed by a black roof both heats the space below, making the space less comfortable, and is also carried into the city air by wind—raising the ambient temperature in what is known as the urban heat island effect. Additionally, there’s a third, less familiar way in which a black roof heats the world: it radiates energy directly into the atmosphere, which is then absorbed by the nearest clouds and ends up trapped by the greenhouse effect, contributing to global warming.

Really, History Channel?

The plot holes of WWII

Not that the good guys are much better. Their leader, Churchill, appeared in a grand total of one episode before, where he was a bumbling general who suffered an embarrassing defeat to the Ottomans of all people in the Battle of Gallipoli. Now, all of a sudden, he’s not only Prime Minister, he’s not only a brilliant military commander, he’s not only the greatest orator of the twentieth century who can convince the British to keep going against all odds, he’s also a natural wit who is able to pull out hilarious one-liners practically on demand. I know he’s supposed to be the hero, but it’s not realistic unless you keep the guy at least vaguely human.

On The Clavicles of Collossi

Research generally gets more difficult over time, in a quantifiable way, as you clear out the low-hanging fruit.

Hard to find

The fact that discovery can become extremely hard does not mean that it stops, of course. All three of these fields have continued to be steadily productive. But it does tell us what kind of resources we may need to continue discovering things. To counter an exponential decay and maintain discovery at the current pace, you need to meet it with a scientific effort that obeys an exponential increase. To find a slightly smaller mammal, or a slightly heavier chemical element, you can’t just expend a bit more effort. Sometimes you have to expend orders of magnitude more.