This Won't Affect the Consumer Price Index

Detection of Waves in Space Buttresses Landmark Theory of Big Bang

Reaching back across 13.8 billion years to the first sliver of cosmic time with telescopes at the South Pole, a team of astronomers led by John M. Kovac of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics detected ripples in the fabric of space-time — so-called gravitational waves — the signature of a universe being wrenched violently apart when it was roughly a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second old. They are the long-sought smoking-gun evidence of inflation, proof, Dr. Kovac and his colleagues say, that Dr. Guth was correct.

I imagine that this will trigger an inflationary period of blog posts and science articles by those who are far more qualified than I to explain the results.

Somebody Understands Quantum Mechanics?

Nobody understands quantum mechanics? Nonsense!

Interesting take on this, presenting other examples of people who had an “interpretation” of reality and forced their model to accommodate it and make the model work according to their notion of how the world should work. I also agree with the conclusion, that interpretations may be a useful stepping stone for investigation, but until someone comes up with a testable prediction unique to one interpretation, you can’t claim that it’s right.

Related: his previous entry, Reality and the Interpretations of Quantum Mechanics

A Cautionary Tale

Related to Monday’s post about copyright and plagiarism:

Photographer wins $1.2 million from companies that took pictures off Twitter

Joshua Kaufman, a lawyer for AFP, blamed the infringement on an innocent mistake and said the Twitter user who posted Morel’s photos without attribution bore responsibility for the error. The AFP editor, Kaufman said, believed the pictures were posted for public distribution.

Tis points out a pitfall of one of the big issues — posting without attribution. You can’t simply assume that an unattributed picture is in the public domain, and if you want to use the picture you need to track down the copyright owner. As I had relayed: www does not mean public domain (before Pedantic Man swoops in, yes, Twitter doesn’t actually use www in its address. But the concept is the same)

Getting Real

Guest Post: Is It Solipsistic in Here, or Is It Just Me?

Our first major breakthrough came when we realized that physics can pin down what’s real and what isn’t. It’s one of those things that’s somehow stupidly obvious and yet deeply profound: something is real if it’s invariant. That is, something is real if it remains unchanged from one reference frame to the next. Just look at a rainbow. You’ll see one in the sky if you’re in just the right reference frame with the Sun shining in from behind you, and droplets of water in the atmosphere refracting the light. It’s pretty, but good luck trying to grab it. A rainbow is not a physical object stapled to the sky. It’s a product of your reference frame. Which is to say, it’s not real.

An interesting viewpoint, and one I don’t recall coming across before, probably because I don’t do physics that ventures into this area. One of the stumbling points I’ve observed in discussions about what is real is the definition of real — real as in a physical object instead of a concept, or real as in not an illusion, i.e. not fake? Here it looks like the former: a rainbow is not a physical object, hence it’s not real. But it’s not an illusion, not some bit of fakery. The effect (refraction of light) is real.

There are plenty of not-real (not physical object) things in physics; the author concludes that basically all of it falls into this category, but that’s not the point of physics. Physics exists to tell us how nature behaves, not what it is. Electric fields and phonons and lots of denizens of physics models don’t physically exist. There is no claim that they do. It’s that nature behaves as if they existed, and since that lets us predict and retrodict what happens, that’s good enough.

I Would Do Anything for Blogs, but I Won't Do That

Third of a short series. Summary of and commentary on some talks at ScienceOnline 2014

The session was called Standards in blogging, referring to scientific and journalistic standards. The question before the group was should blogging have some sort of code of conduct, much like journalists do (or are supposed to have), and the research standards scientists aspire to?

It was broken down into the areas of

* Background – do you have to read the original paper? Do you contact the authors? Discuss the science with other parties?

* Neutrality and balance

* Use of anonymous sources

In broad terms it was recognized that blogging standards must be informal, because there isn’t a formal path like journalism school that could teach the standards. So we sort of have to deal with this on our own.

I think the room was generally surprised that reading the original paper had to be brought up, because if you’re critiquing a paper, of course you have to read it. It was clear from the discussion of contacting the author(s) and potential competitors that the bulk of the audience was comprised of bloggers who were not always schooled in the topics they wrote about, which led into the question of how to convey when you are speaking from a position of expertise, or interpreting others’ expertise, which may confuse readers who aren’t familiar with the author. I’m not sure there was a clear solution on that. Caveat emptor, I guess.

On the subject of anonymous sources, we discussed the fact that peer review is already anonymous, so blogging about a paper already involves anonymity. While I seem to recall a sentiment that anonymous quotes were frowned upon, one of the contrary observations was that some scientists might not want to go on the record calling out problems with a paper published in their field.

Most of this really doesn’t affect me, though. All of the discussion through the first 2/3 of the session seemed to be from the non-scientist or scientists blogging subjects outside their field of expertise. I finally jumped in to give my perspective, that I don’t interview people so a lot of the points were moot, because what I am offering is my informal opinion, based on some level of expertise. That limits the scope of my discussion, of course, but this is a hobby. The one part that does apply is that I do consult other physicist before writing some posts. I works with some smart people, so I can often double-check that I’m not being an idiot (doesn’t always work, though), but not in a way where I would quote them. More like the journalists’ deep background, being a second source.

On the subject of neutrality and balance, my view is that I blog so that I don’t have to be balanced or neutral. In the room there was a definite aversion to false balance — those stories you read where you get both sides of the story, even if the other side is crackpottery. But to me true balance and neutrality are not important in blogs the way they are in traditional journalism. In the applicable type of post I’m saying what I think, or translating some bit of science for a wider audience based on what I know. (The rest of the time I’m complaining about how someone else didn’t do it right or just posting interesting links). To me, that ability to freely add your own bias or perspective is the whole point of blogging — you can do this without it having to go through someone else’s journalistic filter. (also not having to go through someone’s editor to decide if the story is worthy)

End of the Road?

Can Science ever be “Settled”?

You can reach a point on basic concepts where the sheer weight of the evidence tells you that the idea is right, even though some details are left to be worked out. Science is an iterative process — we strive to be less wrong than the iteration before, and we work out details that are out on the edges of what we’ve been able to investigate. Sometimes, as in the case of quantum mechanics and relativity, those edges reveal a whole new set of behaviors, but as interesting and useful as those paradigm shifts have been, one needs to recognize that the physics that came before is still valid over a wide range of sizes and speeds. Classical treatments still work well for macroscopic objects and speeds not a large fraction of c.

Similarly, we know that the planet is heating up and we know that humans have a significant effect on this. That’s settled, despite the sturm und drang of the denialists. What’s not settled is a matter of precision of the individual contributions and effects. Germ theory is settled science, even as we learn more and more about the details of microorganisms and how they behave. And so on for gravitation, the Big Bang, and evolution.

Not a Difficult Concept: Don't Take It if it's Not Yours

Second of a short series. Summary of and commentary on some talks at ScienceOnline 2014

Two of the sessions I attended involved legal and ethical issues of content use online. One was a Q&A session with an intellectual property lawyer and the other was a session entitled “Combatting Online Parasitism”.

The legal “advice” (which, disclaimer: does not actually constitute legal advice) confirmed several things I already knew; I had read up on copyright some years ago when I started trying to get cartoons published. The big concept that both talks had in common was this general idea:

If you didn’t create the work, you don’t control the copyright to it. You are NOT free to use it without permission.

There are some caveats. Some content creators don’t own the copyright — it could be a “work for hire”, i.e. it’s your job to create the content and your employer owns it, or (like me), you work for the US government, and content created for work carries no copyright at all. It’s also possible to transfer copyright (must be done in writing), and some content is in the public domain. Some content carries easy-to-use licensing, such as creative commons.

In the parasitism discussion, I think it was agreed that pictures and artwork are generally abused more than written works, though that does happen (some sites are just bots that mirror other sites), and Twitter is where a lot of the image-copying abuse takes place, since it’s so easy to just link to a photo and post it. It’s so commonplace that there is little social stigma attached to the act. The common justification “but you get free exposure” doesn’t fly as an excuse — it’s the copyright holder and only the copyright holder who gets to make that decision.

There are several Twitter accounts where all they do is link photos and artwork, and very often with no attribution and probably without permission. The two are actually separate issues.

Attribution does not solve copyright, it solves plagiarism. It is not a cure for infringement

That means that simply posting an image credit does not get you off the hook for stealing the image. (Using the lay definition of “stealing”. I’m not entertaining the semantic argument here that intellectual property theft falls under civil law and therefore is technically not stealing. It’s still illegal, and wrong.) Giving credit is better than not giving credit, but absent permission as discussed above, it’s still a copyright violation.

There were a number of people in the room who had had their work used without permission, and I was one of them. I’ve seen my cartoons show up in various places on the web — on an academic blog, in a newsletter (where they had the audacity to say “used with permission”). A few times I’ve had cartoons appear on popular Facebook pages, and in no instances did they ask. It’s not like I would have declined, but they should still ask.

On the other hand, I should point out that’s I’ve had a number of requests over the years to use my cartoons in academic talks and even in a book, so there are a lot of people out there doing it right. I almost always say yes to such requests, and generally offer higher-resolution copies of the work, but limiting the quality of available works doesn’t do much to combat online abuse. (it might work in the cases where print quality or magnification is needed)

Another way of stating the above is

www does not mean public domain

So, what do do about all this?

For some of us in the audience, a missing attribution was the primary problem rather than the lack of permission (which they would have been happy to give), so simply contacting the people works in some of these cases. Some abusers simply aren’t aware of the law, and are happy to comply. Others, not so much — there were some anecdotes about attribution being posted for the one case, but no change in overall behavior of the site.

When a simple request fails, public shaming can work. It turns out that some vigilante-esque negative publicity can go a long way, according to some of the stories that were told. It was suggested that a twitter hashtag (#picbatman was mentioned) for “attribution rangers” would help rally folks to bring attention to some abusers.

There was also some lamenting that some of the larger names online don’t take attributions and copyright infringement seriously. “Takedown” letters go to the service providers, not the sites themselves, and formal legal action may be too involved for an individual. To me this is especially disappointing; there are entities out there that are very protective of their own intellectual property but seemingly not as vigilant when it comes to matters of infringing others’ IP.

I think the general mood was that while getting permission is the proper thing to do, using works without attribution feels much worse. (This may reflect a room demographic of people whose job is not primarily creating such content and who don’t have employers with resources to fight the copyright battle.) In that regard, one of the ending sentiments was

Crediting others for their work costs you nothing


Edit to add (3/14) Post by Matt Shipman with some tips and links: Science Communication and the Art of Not Stealing


It's not Woo, It's Wu

Madame Wu and the backward universe

The Einsteins, Newtons, and Hawkings are generally better known than the people who do experiments. As a result, many of the great experimental physicists get overlooked even when we talk about important discoveries. However, without work in labs (and observatories), theories are no better than random thoughts; many theories have been ruled out by experiment, and forgotten as a result.