Category Archives: General Science

How not to promote science, American Physical Society style

The mission statement of the American Physical Society includes in their mission statement, among other things, the intention to be “an authoritative source of physics information for the advancement of physics and the benefit of humanity“.

To this end, they seem to have locked papers from Physical Review from 1948 behind a paywall, for subscribers only, or for those who are ready to pay $25 for access. Thank you, APS. Yes, I know you have expenses, but I also know that I pay more than $100 a year to be a member of your society. Is this really advancing physics and benefiting humanity?

We seem to be locked into our notion that scientific journals belong to the same closed, proprietary publishing model as grocery-store checkout-line magazines. Our blindness to how this utterly contradicts the nature of the scientific endeavor is very similar to what I was just reading in commentary by Eddington from 1920 about how the astronomical community seemed to be clinging to the gravitational contraction model for powering stars, despite the fact that it no longer made sense across a wide range of science.

The Second Law Is…

I will sometimes see science blog posts refer to “The Second Law” as if we all knew exactly what they meant.

As far as I can tell, “The Second Law” could refer to any of:

  • F = ma
  • A line joining the planet to the Sun sweeps out equal areas in equal times
  • ΔS≥0
  • A robot must obey any orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  • The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.

(And probably a number of other things.)

Spring 2007 Science Showdown : Orbit Region, Round 2 : Get Your Votes In Now!

[Orbit Region Showdown, Round 2]

We’ve got four contests this time, with competition fierce and passions running high. Speak for which science concepts deserve to go to the next round! Get your votes in by 10PM Eastern Time on Tuesday, March 20. Results will be posted shortly after that.

The contests:

  • Newton’s Second Law vs. High-Speed Internet: are the basic mechanics of the real world, or the substrate of cyberspace, more important?
  • Euler Angles vs. Particle: is the basic particle description of matter, or the Euler Angles as a parameterization of rotations, more important to science?
  • General Relativity vs. Descriptive Statistics: Einstein’s theory of gravity as curved spacetime heads off against the statistics of data.
  • Bosons vs. Ordinary Matter: In one corner, we have integer spin particles whose quantum mechanical statistics are described by the Bose-Einstein distribution; in the other corner, we have the matter that is neither Dark Matter nor Dark Energy, but actual baryonic matter.

Who will advance to the next round? You decide!

My Take on the Scientific Method (Basic Concepts)

This is my meager contribution to the “Basic Concepts” series that is going on around here. (I hope to do more later, but for right now I want to start with this one.) I’ve written about this before at my blog’s old location, but I’m writing this now without looking back at that; we can compare later to see how consistent I am.

I also expect other scientists to have a slightly different take on this.

In three words, my view is that the scientific method is nothing more than Applied Common Sense. Now, “Common Sense” has at least three meanings. The first meaning is “the title of a tract written by Thomas Paine,” and is not really relevant here. The second meaning is “what seems obvious to people in everyday life,” and is very much not the scientific method, and indeed is often at odds with the scientific method. What I’m talking about here is just common sense in the sense of “apply logic, be careful, ask hard questions when something sounds odd.” The most important point of this is that the scientific method is not some holy rite that is written, learned, and followed ritualistically by scientists. Indeed, it is something anybody can do in almost any situation.

The scientific method also isn’t the clearly delineated set of steps you learned about in junior high school and high school science classes. Those were the steps that start, 1: formulate hypothesis. 2: design experiment. 3: take data. 4: compare data to predictions of hypothesis. Yes, in fact, we are always doing all of these steps, but it is very, very rarely that we do them in the clean, step-by-step method that you learn about in school. Often, we’re stumbling about in the dark. We start looking at or exploring something to test one thing, but see odd behavior; we modify our hypotheses or form new ones, and slightly modify our experimental procedure. There’s a constant feedback going on. We’re playing, but we’re doing it carefully, and we’re doing it systematically.

Continue reading