Thursday, August 29, 2013

Calvin and Hobbes Apocrypha

I found this at Paste magazine. Words by Bill Watterson, creator of Calvin and Hobbes, art so closely inspired by his style that it might as well be by him. A good end to a busy day (click to embiggen):

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Congratulations, We're Getting Nowhere

The New York Times published a letter by a scientist about science literacy today. It is a prime example of how to waste words in a public forum. The author talks about how we've gone backwards (with a 2% change in a statistic, which has got to be within the error bars), says God and science don't conflict and then implies that God and science do conflict, insults creationists without making any distinction between the many varieties, and throws in climate change just in case any minds were still open to slam them shut.

It's preaching to the choir, and the comments bear this out. 90% are empty "you go girl" affirmations of scientism echoing the author's statements and 10% are empty, defiant "I'm a creationist" negations of everything the author says. (At least stubborn denial is interesting.) The "needle" gauging belief of NYT readers did not budge. This just gave them a chance to yell at each other.

It's kind of funny to be saying popularization is what science needs when your very writing style is 1.) boring and 2.) polarizing at once. At least Sagan was never boring. But, honestly, what is interesting or even new in this essay? It gets us nowhere.

When a scientist praises the Manhattan Project without any of the self-reflection of the destruction that project resulted in, then that scientist is indulging in nostalgia and idolizing science. Oppenheimer realized the double-edged nature of science right away with his "I am become Shiva, destroyer of worlds" remark. Every scientist after him has to acknowledge the same.

This essay is venting without nuance, and it only makes things worse. I say that as a scientist lucky enough to work with the beauty and strangeness of the natural world every day. This is a noble and fascinating calling, so when you write to a public audience, make sure you get that across. Instead, we have a political screed, dressed up in a lab coat, arguing against political screeds. Oy.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Book Review: Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard

How a few decades changes a person. When assigned to read this book in high school, my friends made fun of its intense, detailed, natural focus, and, conforming to the non-conformity, I joined right in. Even so, there were images I never forgot: a cat's bloody footprints and a frog sucked hollow by a waterbug. And that was just in the first few chapters.

Now I've returned to finish it for good and find that Annie Dillard has produced a readable, vivid book of what can only be called natural theology. Her willingness to look at the harsh parts of nature unflinchingly, even with an appropriate understated fascination, is the bitter streak that balances the talk of balance and harmony. The book hasn't changed in twenty years, so it must be me.

I wonder how Dillard's occasional God-talk sounds to someone who doesn't come from the Christian viewpoint. I would like to see a new Atheist response to someone who would take the time to read this book. (Alas, they don't seem to have time to turn from the science to something like this.) Also, I'd like to see a secular science writer who can describe nature with the force and power of Dillard. Haven't seen it yet. Maybe Loren Eiseley comes close, and he's even quoted in this, but his work is much more placid than the energy that pulses through Dillard's prose.

It's too early to review this book -- I just finished it and my head's still reeling -- but it was worth reading slowly, as summer changed from early to late, only a few pages at a time. It's that rich and multi-layered. I'd like to know what others think of it, so comment below if you have ...

Friday, August 16, 2013

Book Review: Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species (A Graphic Adaptation)

If you want to "see the movie" instead of reading the book, this graphic novel edition of The Origin of Species will do the trick (Michael Keller wrote, Nicolle Roger Fuller drew). Darwin's arguments are appropriately distilled and discussed, and the high points of his prose are pulled out. As an example of the art of comics I can't recommend it. Technical issues such as layout, movement between boxes, and the quality of drawing aren't up to average for the field. I also would have liked more recent science supporting Darwin's thoughts. There's a few examples but there could be many more. Still, if Darwin's words are what you're interested in (and you should be), then this is probably the most efficient way to examine them.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Making Copper Pennies Glow Bright Red

Chemistry comes closest to Harry-Potter style magic when it dramatically reveals the hidden. For example, let's say you have two pennies, one made before 1982 and one made after. If you heat the first one in a flame and dip it in nail polish remover, it will glow bright red, like an iron poker. But the second one won't do it at all.

The difference is in the minting of the coins. Copper has become so valuable (and pennies so, well, not valuable) that it ceased to make financial sense to put a lot of copper in pennies after 1982. They could make them out of zinc and they'd still look the same to most everyone. But anyone trying to use the special properties of copper would notice.

Copper is better than zinc at binding oxygen, and that's how the whole thing works. Oxygen plus hot acetone burns red-hot, and the penny is catalyzing the approach of the gas to the liquid. Zinc just doesn't stick to oxygen as much as iron, and it does not burn the nail polish remover.

Of course, this requires a bunsen burner and a flask rather than a magic wand and a cauldron, but it works for me all the same. Plus, I can actually do it. Do I have a volunteer from the audience?

Color Wheel of Cartoons

This is a bit old, and I can't get it to work on the blog, but when something comes along that organizes the world in a new way I just have to share it: It's a color wheel of cartoon characters. The interactive wheel will zoom in on the character you mouse over. I was most excited to see Totoro included.

Here's the link.

Branches of Bacteria

"I think that I shall never see // A poem as lovely as a tree" -- but check out these bacterial plates!

Each has the same grace and flowing beauty of a tree. They grow out instead of up, and the colors are artifically added, but the structures are fascinating. Enjoy more at this link. Don't miss the interesting quote at the end about how these are like musical compositions.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Book Review: Chemistry, Quantum Mechanics, and Reductionism by Hans Primas

Well, with a title like that, how can you go wrong? In this book, Hans Primas walks the line between physics-chemistry-mathematics and philosophy. Sections involving advanced mechanics algebra are outside of my field and it's not my field to critique those, but I found this fascinating. Two quotes by Goethe in a physical chemistry text is two more than what I've seen before, and there are other parallels I could make to Owen Barfield's arguments at times. Also, frequently Polanyi comes to mind. This book is as much philosophy as it is physical chemistry. Natural philosophy, of course.

Primas argues that it is not a trivial thing to cross from the quantum physical world to the classical physical world, and that some of the ways we "bridge the gap" mathematically don't work. To do it right, he starts from the ground up with a non-Boolean quantum logic that allows for superposition of states and also for the influence of the environment/measurement on the experiment. The biggest experimental indication that we need to do this seems to be the EPR correlations, which Primas argues shows that experiments are not as separable as we assume. I think I agree but am not enitrely convinced that EPR correlations affect classical outcomes.

Primas argues that we cannot so easily separate the experiment from the experimenter, and that we cannot build a classical physics from quantum mechanics alone. The extra ingredient we need to do so is context or observation on a classical level. Classical properties like chirality and molecular structure constrain the quantum mechanics. The world cannot be added up from quantum mechanics alone with a big enough computer, in other words.

What impressed me was the depth of philosophical thought. Primas is searching for a quantum ontology (if that's the right way to say it), and is not content with the standard "it's just what we measure, let's not think about what it means" Copenhagen interpretation. He digs back to Greek philosophy and makes the connections between his ideas and history as well as experiment and theory. He put his thoughts in the proper context, just like he argues we should do with our experiments.

It's strange to be reading a typed set of lectures from the 80's, but it worked for me, just like reading Polanyi's seminal article on similar topics still works. I found Primas by talking to Robert Bishop (philosophy of science, Wheaton) and reading his article "Whence Chemistry?" published in 2010, so people are still thinking about it, and it's not clear that Primas's objections have been adequately answered in the two decades since publication.

I'd like to list here for reference the six limits Robert mentioned to me that Primas lists, which must be crossed when moving from quantum to classical physics (p. 332ff). These are where the rubber meets the road for Primas's ideas, so they are particularly important:
1.) Shadow edges
2.) The van Hove limit
3.) The Boltzmann-Grad limit
4.) The Brownian-motion limit
5.) The Hartree limit
6.) Molecular structure (e.g., chirality)

I did not expect to get as involved in this book as I did, but it was a fascinating if somewhat vertiginous trip. Still processing and probably will be for quite some time.

PS: One useful tidbit: I did not know, or I knew but then forgot, that the Uncertainty Principle is not only found in Quantum Mechanics, but instead originated in the classical world. It's a consequence of limits on data transmittal, and in fact Heisenberg may have gotten the idea from a classical origin! So one of the prime examples of quantum weirdness actually doesn't require quanta.

PPS: As I was reading this a philosopher of science ran a pair of articles on the NYT philsophy blog about how he's frustrated at people who abuse quantum mechanics to make weird philosophical statements. I agree with him on many points but find his argument ultimately a lot less convincing on what really matters than the arguments of Primas. In fact, Primas argues forcefully against some of the statements made on that blog. Mostly, I'm frustrated with the attitude that if some people do the philosophy wrong, then EVERYONE must be doing the philosophy wrong and we all should just bite the bullet of the Copenhagen interpretation (or worse yet the Everett Many-Worlds interpretation). This is not a subject that can be resolved on a blog. Therefore ... I will shut up now!