Category Archives: Science & Culture

The Big Bang Wasn’t All At One Point (Cosmos Commentary)

I finally got around to watching the first episode of Cosmos. I quite enjoyed it, although probably not as much as I would have were I still 9 (which is the age I was back when I used to watch Carl Sagan doing Cosmos… and that, indeed, is probably a nontrivial part of why I’m an astronomer today rather than a paleontologist). I think it’s awesome that once again we’ve got a very charismatic astronomer on TV sharing the wonders of the Universe with us. Alas, I doubt it will have anywhere near the cultural impact that the original Cosmos did, simply because there is so much more out there to pay attention to now. (Not only is there more out there to pay attention to, but over time American society has become more and more ADHD.) Back in the late 1970s, there was little more than three networks of TV to choose from; it was the rare household that had cable. Now, most people have many more options for TV, never mind the ability to download stuff off the Internet on demand. Even if it’s just as high-quality, just as cool, and just as engaging as the old Cosmos was, I fear that the new Cosmos will not be noticed by as large a fraction of the population, and will be more quickly forgotten as people move on to the next shiny thing.

As for the show itself: it all seemed pretty basic to me, but then again, I’m a PhD physicist and professional astronomer who does a fair amount of astronomy outreach, so I was not the primary target audience. I liked the homage to the old show– not just the explicit one at the end (which brought a tear to my eye), but the “we are starstuff” comment, and the Ship of the Imagination (which, as Tyson points out, allows you to travel much faster the speed of light, something I’m doing all the time when I teach astronomy classes).

I did have a couple of quibbles, though. My first was when he was flying through the Solar System’s asteroid belt. The asteroid belt was thick with rocks, creating a massive hazard. The real asteroid belt is not like that. There is less mass, total, of asteroids, than there is in any single planet, and they’re spread out over a huge area in the disk of the solar system. This is why we can fly spacecraft through the asteroid belt without worrying about weaving and dodging. There, asteroids just aren’t that thick.

What, is this Cosmos, or The Empire Strikes Back?

To be fair, when he was out in the Oort cloud, although yet again they were shown too thick (I know, for purposes of actually being able to see something), he did mention that the Oort cloud objects are typically as far apart as Earth is from Saturn. Still, the visual image will stick with people more than the words.

My primary quibble with the show, though, is the title of this post. One sentence of what he said promulgated one of the primary misconceptions about the nature of the Big Bang. “Our entire universe emerged form a point smaller than single atom.” GAH! No! Indeed, Tyson was (perhaps deliberately) cagey about the difference between our Universe and our Observable Universe. He did use the term “Observable Universe”, with a good description. (It’s as far away as we can see, a horizon defined by the speed of light and the 13.8-billion-year-old age of the Universe.) However, thereafter, he seemed to be conflating the Universe with the Observable Universe. While there are some good reasons why one might do this, the way in which he did it fed into a very common misconception about the Big Bang.

Even though our observable universe is finite, the whole universe is much bigger– indeed, perhaps (probably?) infinite.

Here’s the real story, given the Big Bang model as we best understand and use it in astronomy: the Big Bang didn’t happen all at one point. Rather, the Big Bang happened everywhere. The problem with describing it as happening at one point is that it gives you the misconception that we could identify a point in space away from which everything is rushing. This is not the description of our Universe that shows up in modern cosmological models. Every point in the Universe is equivalently the center. Any point in space you can identify: that is where the Big Bang happened. Everything is rushing away from everything else. It’s really not like an explosion, where there’s a center everything rushes away from. (I wrote about this years ago in my blog post “Big Bang”: A terrible name for a great theory.)

Strictly speaking, it is true that our observable universe was once upon a time compressed into a size smaller than the size of an atom. However, saying that by itself implies a misconception: that that compressed, less-than-an-atom size of extremely dense, extremely exotic matter is all there was. In fact, that’s not right. Our Observable Universe was that small… but just as today there is other Universe (filled with galaxies) outside the boundaries of our Observable Universe, at that early epoch there was more extremely exotic dense-matter Universe outside the atom-sized ball that would one day expand and become today’s Observable Universe. Indeed, if the Universe today is infinite, it was always infinite… even back at that early epoch we’re talking about.

The Observable Universe (or a 2d projection thereof) at a period a tiny fraction of a second later than what I’m talking about in the text.
The whole Universe (or a 2d projection thereof) at the same epoch.

This may seem like a minor quibble, but the notion of the Big Bang as an explosion, something everything is rushing away from, is a very tenacious misconception that leads to other misconceptions about our Universe amongst many people I run into. It’s a little difficult to wrap your head around the real model– indeed, people find talks about cosmology that try to describe the real situation (and also the cosmology section of my current ongoing astronomy class) very brain-hurty. But, to my point of view, that’s part of the fun!

There was one throwaway comment about the Big Bang that Tyson made in Cosmos that I really liked. Just before the comment about the atom-sized Universe that got me worked up to make this post, he said about this early Big Bang epoch that “It’s as far back as we can see in time… for now.” That “for now” is great, and spot on. If you read A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking, he’ll talk about how the Big Bang was the beginning of time, and how it’s not even really meaningful to ask what was “before” the Big Bang. While that’s true in a purely classical General Relativity description of the Big Bang, we know that such a description can’t be right… because our Universe also has Quantum Mechanics in it, and we have huge amounts of experimental evidence telling us that we need to take Quantum Mechanics seriously. The real story is that there is an extremely early epoch in the Universe (what I tend to think of as “the beginning” nowadays) about which we can make supportable statements based on our understanding of physics. However, we also know that we don’t understand physics well enough to really know what the Universe was like before that early epoch. So, it is meaningful to talk about a before, it’s just that that before is a “known unknown”.

For now.

The Higgs Boson: a talk in Second Life tomorrow morning (April 6)

It’s been a year since I’ve given a public outreach physics and astronomy talk in Second Life. I used to do these things fairly regularly as a part of MICA (the Meta-Institute of Computational Astronomy). However, the MICA project has completed, its island in Second Life has gone online, its Second Life groups have been disbanded, and MICA no longer really exists. (Its website is still up, and should stay up for at least a little while. If I were smart, I’d probably make sure to download and archive elsewhere all of the audio recordings of my own talks….) A write-up of what MICA did and was all about is available at, and was published in the conference proceedings of a SLActions conference on virtual worlds

I’ve always meant to find other venues for continuing to do popular talks in virtual worlds. Someday, I’d like to escape from Second Life’s walled garden and start doing these talks in an OpenSim grid, and even did the first steps for trying to get set up to do them in my own region on OSGrid. However, of course, the audience in Second Life for now is still far bigger.

Fortunately, the Exploratorium, the excellent science museum in San Francisco, has a presence in Second Life. This Saturday (tomorrow, 2013 April 6) at 10AM pacific time (17:00 UT) I’ll be giving a talk about the Higgs boson in the Exploratorium region in Second Life. Remember, basic Second Life accounts are free. Drop by if you’re interested.

Image of a Thermomnuclear Supernova Progentior

Holy cow, it’s been a long time since I blogged.

The class I’m teaching right now is 3d Computer Modelling and Animation. Perhaps the hardest thing about it is figuring out if the word Modelling has one or two l’s in it… it depends on whether you’re in the USA or Canada, I think.

For this class, I’m making all of the students do a major project. Some of them are doing some pretty interesting things, and already several of them have figured out things about Blender (the 3D software we’re using, a quite powerful free package that you should check out yourself) that I don’t know myself. A couple are playing around with motion tracking, in order to add 3D rendered elements into a live action video scene. One is building a game using the Blender game engine. Others are doing various other animations.

I’ve decided to take on a project myself. For this project, I am going to model a white dwarf in a mutual orbit with a main sequence or red giant star, pulling matter off of it into an accretion disk. During the animation, the white dwarf will go critical, and explode in a supernova, blowing itself way, and blowing off some of the outer layers of the companion star.

So far, I’ve managed to create the basic progenitor model, and do a little bit of animation of the textures so that the disk is spinning, the star’s surface is roiling, and the gas bridge between the star and the disk looks a little like it’s streaming. Here’s a rendered frame from what I’ve done so far:

Click to embiggen (CC-BY-3.0)

I’ll certainly post the full animation once I’ve completed it. Next, I’m going to have to start worrying about how to deal with the supernova. Eventually, I’ll set the whole thing to music.

A muddled article on Relativity in the Oberlin alumni magazine

My wife graduated from from Oberlin college in 1992, and as such she gets the Oberlin alumni magazine. The summer 2012 issue includes a one-page article entitled “The Entirety of Relativity”, which I find to be a very unfortunate presentation of Relativity. (As a pedantic point, it’s only talking about Special Relativity (SR), and doesn’t address General Relativity (GR) at all, but that really is a pedantic point. When a physicist says “Relativity”, she likely means GR (especially given that SR is a subset of GR, so nothing is lost), but when presented publicly we often use “Relativity” as a shorthand for SR.)

The basic problem with the article is that it presents the theory as if its nature were the way that SR has been taught to students for a long time. The article starts with three things that are correct as far as they go: moving clocks run slow, a moving rod is short, and moving clocks aren’t synchronized. Where the article loses me, however, is on point number 4, “That’s All There Is To It.”.The brief text after this says that the first three points are the basis of relativity, and the rest of the article claims that all of SR is a consequence of these three points. This is at the very least a perverse way of describing the theory.

A lot of texts at both the high school and college level present Relativity by first presenting these three points. You’re given formulae for each of these consequences; parts of them resemble each other, but they’re each presented as if they were a fundamental formula that couldn’t be derived from anything else, for you to memorize (or, in a more modern way of thinking about it, look up) and use. However, this is a back-assward way of presenting SR, and I would argue that stating that the rest of SR is a consequence of these three observations is not just back-assward, but in fact wrong.

In fact, these three points are themselves consequences of the theory of Relativity. The formulae for them can be derived from more fundamental considerations. They’re no more fundamental than all of the various kinematic formulae you memorize or look up (such as da2) when you do a non-calculus Newtonian mechanics class; those kinematic formulae themselves are just results of the definition of velocity and acceleration as, respectively, the rate of change of position and the rate of change of velocity, together with Calculus. Those definitions are the fundamental thing, not all the various kinematic equations you learn to use if you take a non-Calculus physics class. I could start with da2, take a couple of derivatives, and say, “hey, acceleration is the rate-of-change of the rate-of-change of position, and that’s a consequence of this kinematic equation”. That would be back-assward and indeed wrong, and it’s just as wrong to say that everything else in Relativity is a consequence of moving clocks running slow, separated moving clocks not being synchronized, and moving rods being short.

Special Relativity itself starts with just two very simple postulates— “simple” in the sense of “not complex”, not in the sense of “easy to understand”. Those postulates are:

  • The laws of physics are the same for every freely-falling observer
  • The speed of light is one of those laws of physics; every freely-falling observer will measure the speed of light in a vacuum to be 2.998×108 meters per second.

Everything else in SR— including moving clocks running slowly, separated moving clocks not being synchronized, and moving rods being short, as well as other things (such as the Doppler shift, focusing of light emitted by a moving object in the direction of motion, an apparent rotation of a moving object) are consequences of these two postulates.

I should note that both of these postulates do require more explanation to be truly precise. For the first postulate, you have to carefully define “freely-falling observer”. You get it basically right if there are no net external forces other than gravity acting on that observer. (However, if you allow gravity to be around, things can get a little subtly complicated. It doesn’t ruin the postulates, but you have to be careful in treating the consequences.) For the second postulate, in fact it’s not the speed of light that’s absolute, it’s the speed of any object that both carries energy and is massless. Light just happens to be the thing that we think about the most that works like this, and thus we call the cosmic speed limit “the speed of light”, even though we really ought to call it “the speed of spacetime” (at least in the context of Relativity).

One of the most interesting consequences of these two postulates it that you have to change the way you think about time. Most of us live our lives with a Galilean/Newtonian view of time: it’s an absolute, that advances at the same rate and is the same for everybody. However, you can’t maintain that idea and have the speed of the same bit of light be measured at the same rate by everybody regardless of how they’re moving. Galileo and Newton would say that the latter is wrong; Einstein’s postulate, from which all of Relativity springs, was that in fact it’s this speed of massless objects that is absolute, and as such we just have to give up on the idea of absolute time. Some of the consequences of this are that separated moving clocks aren’t synchronized and moving clocks run slow… as well as other things.

I’m fond of the way that Thomas Moore’s Six Ideas That Shaped Physics presents Special Relativity. (This is the book series that I currently use when teaching introductory calculus-based physics.) His Book R of the series is written for college-level physics who have had Calculus (and indeed have had some Calculus-based Newtonian physics). It presents SR not in the old-fashioned and unfortunate pedagogical way that the Oberlin article does— by starting with the consequences such as time dilation and with their formulae, and only later getting to the fundamental structure of spacetime implied by Einsteins postulates— but rather by starting with the fundamental structure of spacetime implied by Einstein’s postulates, and then developing the consequences out of that

Yes, it’s easier to just learn the formulae and do calculations about time dilation and so forth, and presents fewer difficult abstract conceptual challenges to students coming across this for the first time. However, if you learn it this way, you’re given a warped perspective of what the theory of Special Relativity really is. My beef with this Oberlin alumni article is that it presents Relativity as if the theory itself is based and structured in the way that it has often been taught.

When Andrew Hacker asks “Is Algebra Necessary?”, why doesn’t he just ask “Is High School Necessary?”

Yes, I admit, the editorial at the New York Time entitled “Is Algebra Necessary?” pushes my buttons. Hacker makes some valid and relevant points, and I’ll get back to that. However, the core of his argument is the ultimate in anti-intellectualism. What’s worse, it’s the kind of anti-intellectualism that you get from intellectuals, the sort of thing that sprouts from those on the math-ignorant side of the “two cultures” identified by C. P. Snow.

Andrew Hacker’s argument against making algebra necessary for high school and college students is essentially: Math Is Hard. Having to do it gets in the way of people who could be amazing at other things, because they will drop out of high school because Math Is Hard. So, rather than stop them from achieving all that they might achieve, we should just remove algebra from the high school curriculum. He points out that failing math is one of the main reasons students leave school. Now, I might think that this is a reason to look at our educational culture, at how math is taught, at the fact that it is somehow deemed acceptable and indeed normal to find basic math impenetrable. But, if you’re on the other side of the two cultures, evidently this means that we as a society should just give up on the general teaching of basic algebra. Evidently, it’s OK that the elites who understand the simplest things about science become that much more separated from the general educated public, and that the generally educated public know that much less about them.

There’s one particular part of the argument I want to highlight:

Nor is it clear that the math we learn in the classroom has any relation to the quantitative reasoning we need on the job. John P. Smith III, an educational psychologist at Michigan State University who has studied math education, has found that “mathematical reasoning in workplaces differs markedly from the algorithms taught in school.” Even in jobs that rely on so-called STEM credentials — science, technology, engineering, math — considerable training occurs after hiring, including the kinds of computations that will be required.

So, because algebra isn’t what’s needed in jobs, we shouldn’t be teaching it. This is absolutely the wrong way to think about a lot of education.

If you accept that argument, we need to reevaluate the entire high school curriculum, and the entire core curriculum of all colleges and universities. I think most people would agree that you need to be able to read and write in order to function in today’s society. Do you really need to be able to interpret themes in literature, however? Honestly, is anything that you do in high school or college English classes really necessary in the workplace, any more than algebra is? The kind of reading and writing that most people need is something that students should already know by the time they’re out of middle school. Likewise, history, biology, all the rest: everything that they study in high school is not going to be necessary for their jobs. And, really, if the purpose of high school and college is to train people to function like good little Betas and Gammas within our economic system, why is Andrew Hacker singling out algebra for attack? If we’re going to dumb down the curriculum because we don’t like that right now some people aren’t mastering it, why don’t we just dumb it down all the way?

The simple fact is that a college or university education is not job training. In recent decades, it’s become conflated with job training, at least in North America, and this is too bad. A liberal arts education is all about expanding your mind, all about being able to think. It’s not about gaining skills that you are then going to use in a job. Too many of us professors tend to not have any clue what somebody is supposed to do to earn a living after a liberal arts education other than go to graduate school (so that your liberal arts education is “training” for what you do next). That’s because that was our own life trajectory, and it’s what we know. Liberal arts education is to make people into good citizens, not into good workers. They are to acquaint you with the intellectual achievements of humankind. That is why we read the Iliad, why we watch a performance of Hamlet, why we learn about the history of ancient Greece, and, yes, why we study algebra. Because we want people to be educated so that they understand the intellectual achievements that have made our society what it is today, and that will drive our society in the future. We’re training people to be members of civilization, not employees.

I will say that Hacker makes some good points. There are other kinds of quantitative reasoning, which too many of those coming into college and too many in our society completely don’t grasp, that people should learn. A better understanding of basic statistics may at this point be more important to the citizen of a democracy than an understanding of algebra. So, yes, I would agree that we could and perhaps should de-emphasize algebra in favor of making time for statistical awareness, and perhaps in filling in the basic number sense that students failed to get out of elementary school. However, to me this is a bit of a red herring. Yes, we should always be evaluating what the subject matter of mathematical high school education is. But, right now, the problems are bigger than that. That so many people through high school without basic quantitative reasoning skills is not a reason to throw out algebra. We do, however, have to figure out why it is somewhere around fifth grade that individuals and society both get the “Math Is Hard” meme so firmly embedded. Why it becomes normal not to “get” math and indeed a little weird to actually understand and like those classes. Why it becomes OK to not like and not try at math and just do what’s necessary to get by without actually learning anything. I strongly believe that there are serious problems with a lot of the math education that’s done at the later elementary, middle school, and high school level. But that’s not a reason to give up. We might as well point at various studies of how little so many people know about the state of the world to say that teaching geography and international history just isn’t worth doing any more.

Perhaps the problem, or part of the problem, is that we have conflated vocational and liberal arts education. Anybody who is interested in a liberal arts education does not deserve a degree if they are completely ignorant of algebra, and any society that values liberal arts education cannot neglect algebra. However, perhaps not everybody needs such a liberal education. If we have the problem right now of too many people failing out, it may be that we’re pushing them through the wrong kind of education. This does not mean that a liberal arts education needs to jettison those parts of it that are hard for people on the wrong side of C. P. Snow’s divide!

Algebra is fundamental to nearly all of “higher math”. Even if you want to do more than the most basic of things with statistics, you need to know some algebra. To give up on that would be right on par with the giving up on the teaching of history as anything other than memorizing the occasional date, and to give up on the teaching of English literature as anything other than being able to read a short document for simple surface content and to put together a simple declarative sentence. If you want people to be educated beyond elementary school and beyond “job training”, then algebra is one of the intellectual foundations of our civilization that simply cannot be neglected.

The Higgs Boson and Statistics

GUILDENSTERN: …Four: a spectacular vindication of the principle that each individual coin spun individually is as likely to come down heads as tails and therefore should cause no surprise each individual time it does.

   —”Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead” by Tom Stoppard

There has been a lot of bru-ha-ha over the last few days about the much anticipated discovery of what looks to be the Higgs Boson at CERN. Among many other things that you have probably read is the statement that the confidence that the signal is real is 99.9999%. You might be wondering, why so many 9’s? That is, they had a signal a while back that was already 99% or thereabouts certain. If I had 99% confidence in winning the lottery I would go out right now and spend $1000 on lottery tickets. Why was a 99% confidence limit not good enough to indicate discovery? Indeed, the announced discovery, with 99.9999%, is at the statistical confidence level that is considered the minimum for a particle physicist to announce a discovery. Why do they have to be so damn confident?

Rather than talking about the energy spectra of interaction cross sections, let’s talking about flipping coins. At the opening of Tom Stoppard’s play Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, the two courtiers are flipping coins (and have been doing so for some time). They are approaching a streak of 100 flips of heads in a row. Rosencrantz (who wins a coin each time it comes up heads) is not concerned about this, but Guildenstern is so disturbed by the seeming violation of the laws of probability that he philosophizes at length about what it is that’s going on. (The real thing that’s going on is that he’s a character in a play, not a real person.) Let’s keep it more modest, though.

Suppose I were to walk up to you with a quarter, and flip it six times in a row. If the quarter is normal, and if I’m not cheating, the probability that all six flips of the quarter will come down heads is about 1.5%. In other words, if I do flip six heads in a row, you can be 98.5% sure that it was not due to random chance, that I must have been cheating somehow. (Ask me to show you this sometime.) You’re not 100% confident, because there is a small chance that six heads will come up in a row just randomly, but it is a very small chance… and so you would be well within your rights to think that something was probably up. It may not be good enough to convict somebody in a courtroom, but it’s certainly good enough to bet on.

Suppose instead, however, that 30 people come up to you, and each one of them flips six coins in a row. The probability that at least one of those people will flip six heads in a row is 38%. So, while it won’t happen every time this crowd of coin-flippers accosts you, you shouldn’t be particularly surprised that somebody flipped six heads in a row if a whole bunch of people tried it. Even though it’s extremely unlikely that any given coin flipper will flip the coin six times, the probably that somebody somewhere will is entirely reasonable. Lightning has to strike somewhere. (See Randall Munroe’s much more concise take on this, and on overreactions to it.)

This same principle applies to particle physics. The particle physicists looking for the Higgs Boson were not sure at exactly what energy the particle would show up. Here’s one of the plots from the CMS collaboration:

From the 2012 July 4 CMS Higgs Seminar; (c) CERN

The signature of the Higgs Boson is the extra bump of events at an energy of 125 GeV. There are lots and lots of events at all energies in the plot; there’s a little something extra there, which indicates that something is going on there, and that something is probably the production of a short-lived Higgs boson. But they didn’t know before they found it to look right at 125 GeV; it could have been at other energies, too. If all they were after was finding something that was “a little extra” at 95% confidence, they could have found it lots of places; indeed, there’s a data point hanging out there at a bit over 135 GeV that is that far away from the background. But since there’s 30 data points in the plot, I’m not the least bit surprised to see that. Randomly, you’d expect to see at least one of those more than 3/4 of the time somebody showed you a plot like this with 30 data points, even if there are no new particles.

The physicists in these collaborations were doing the equivalent of looking at a whole bunch of people flipping coins, and trying to find somebody who was flipping more heads than tails. If you look at 30 people who flip 6 coins and you find one person who has flipped 6 heads in a row, you have no right to declare that you’ve found a person who is cheating at flipping coins; the chances of that happening randomly are too high. Similarly, if you look at a whole bunch of different energies, and you see a single place where more is going on to 99% confidence than you’d expect from random fluctuations, you don’t have much confidence that you’ve really found anything… because if you look at enough different energies, you will eventually find the unlikely random fluctuation. This is why for a particle physicist to be confident that she really has discovered something, she needs six nines in her confidence.

As for why the Higgs field (the “same thing” as the Higgs Boson… it’s complicated) gives particles mass… that I really don’t understand.

Neil deGrasse Tyson isn’t the only black astronomer

I have noticed a tendency recently for people to mention Neil deGrasse Tyson when talking about black people doing science, and doing astronomy in particular. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with this; deGrasse Tyson is, in fact, black, and is, in fact, an astronomer. Indeed, as somebody who’s caught the attention of the media and who evidently has the charisma to hold it, he’s the closest thing we have to a modern-day Carl Sagan. So, go on celebrating him!

However, I am brought to mind this XKCD comic, in which Zombie Marie Curie comes back to take people to task for always mentioning her, and only her, when trying to convince people that women can do science.

There are actually lots of black astronomers out there, and I don’t know who most of them are. (Just because I don’t know who most of all astronomers are.) Yes, blacks do remain an underrepresented minority in astronomy, but that shouldn’t take anything away from the individuals out there who are doing solid astronomy. I will mention two I have personally worked with. (There are more famous ones than these two, but my point is just to give a shout-out to a couple of good folks.)

Lou Strolger is an associate professor at Western Kentucky University. I met him in 1999 when I was a post-doc at LBNL and he was a graduate student at Michegan (although in residence in Chile) working with Chris Smith. In fact, Lou was a member of the other team; I was in Saul Perlmutter’s supernova cosmology project, and Lou was in Brian Schmidt’s team. However, in 1999, Saul’s gang collaborated with Chris and Lou (and some others) on a search for “nearby” supernova. (Things less than a billion light-years away. You know, backyard stuff.) Lou went on to be a post-doc working with Adam Reiss (the third guy to share the Nobel Prize with Saul and Brian), and after that to WKU. Had I stayed at Vanderbilt, almost certainly I’d be collaborating with him now. My post-doc, Rachel Gibbons, and I talked to Lou about some collaborative ideas a year or so before I left Vanderbilt. Lou still works on supernovae and cosmology.

Jedidah Isler is a graduate student in astronomy at Yale— or, at least, she was last time I checked. It’s possible she’s graduated in the last year. I knew her when she was a master’s student at Fisk University in the Fisk-Vanderbilt Bridge Program. Although I wasn’t her advisor, I did interact with her, and worked with her on one project (that, sadly, didn’t end up going anywhere, although she did come along to Chile with me and another graduate student on an observing run). Instead of continuing on at Vanderbilt, Jedidah had the opportunity to go work with Meg Urry at Yale; Meg Urry is one of the uberpundits of active galactic nuclei. (In an example of “small world” syndrome, one of Meg’s post-docs, Erin Bonning, is going to be teaching physical science at Quest this coming year.) Last I talked to Jedidah, she was not sure she was going to continue in astronomy after graduating, but was considering going into public policy. We’ll see what happens!

Comments on old posts disabled (with an aside about plasma cosmology)

Fairly frequently I get an e-mail message letting me know that there’s a new comment, a screed from somebody who is put off by my telling the world the truth about the nature of Plasma Cosmology in my post How I Know Plasma Cosmology Is Wrong. This is an ancient post, and the truth is that I don’t really have the time or inclination to engage with the true believers on the matter; this is why I haven’t been approving those comments. (They weren’t ones I wanted to let pass without comment.) However, rather than just disable comments on that post, I realized it made sense to disbale comments on all old posts that I wasn’t going to engage on any more.

I left all posts from 2012 still able to comment. It’s kind of depressing how few there are.

By the way, in case you thought you were missing something, the comments on the “Plasma Cosmology” that I didn’t approve for the most part made one of two points:

  • I was unprofssional and behaving badly by calling Plasma Cosmology a crackpot theory. Why can’t I just engage the theory on its own merits? My tone was perhaps a little bit to dickish; I’ll apologize to Phil Plait, at least, if not to the actual plasma cosmologists themselves. Because, the actual truth is that Plasma Cosmology is a crackpot fringe theory, and to call it anything else would be little different from saying that creationism or intelligent design are “viable scientific alternatives” to evolution. The widespread acceptance of standard cosmology is not because those of us in the mainstream are too afraid to look at the evidence and speak out against the unthinking consensus. The widespread acceptance of standard cosmology is because there is a lot of evidence for it, and there’s not evidence for the alternative proposed by the plasma cosmologists.
  • There is no good evidence for the Big Bang model, Dark Matter, etc. These statements are just flatly incorrect. There is a tremendous amount of evidence for dark matter. I have covered that elsewhere, and a casual browse through Ethan Siegel’s blog, among several others, can give you an introduction to all of that. (Humorously, the “bullet cluster” is one thing that can be identified as the “smoking gun”, but it’s just one piece of evidence amongst a large number of pieces of evidnece.) As for the Big Bang itself, I point you to my podcast at 365 Days of Astronomy from last year entitled On the success of Big Bang Cosmology.

Intelligent Design is Scientific Fraud AND It’s Bad Religion

I’m posting this just to make sure the record is clear: I don’t like Intelligent Design. The people who push it are culture warriors with a religious agenda that involves the denial of science. People who believe it are either confused and have been sucked in by those with an agenda, are cynical culture warriors who want to see science attacked, or are legitimate honest backers who really don’t realize that by backing Intelligent Design, they’re rejecting the fundamental basis of science.

I hope that’s clear.

The reason I say this is that there is a post on the Intelligent Design blog “Uncommon Descent” that includes a quote from an earlier post of mine that appears to be supporting their argument. I reject their argument, and I reject the Intelligent Design behind them. The basis of their argument is that the “Darwinists” (a bad term, as it conflates science and religion) themselves can’t agree about whether relgion is consistent with science, and so therefore you can’t trust that it is. This, of course, has no logical basis. Hell, look at me and look at Uncommon Descent: thesists also disagree! What does that tell you about the issues behind them? Not very much. Trying to figure out what is true based on finding subsets of those who argue about it who have one thing in common but disagree on something else doesn’t tell you a whole hell of a lot.

Looking at the post my quote is from, in retrospect, worrying that the ranting frothing of New Atheists is going to hurt free software is silly (Oracle, the closed gardens being built by the likes Apple and Facebook, the patent lawyers at Google, Samsung, Apple and others in the smartphone business, the MPAA and RIAA, and rhetoric over cyberterrorism don’t need help from any form of atheists). However, I do stand by my rejection of the position on science and religion held by the New Atheists— those atheists who insist that modern acceptance of science requires atheism, and that having any form of religion is inconsistent with it. Not all atheists think that.

Any more than all Christians think that the Bible must be read literally, or any more than all Christians think that you must reject biological evolution.

So do NOT take my quote in the “Uncommon Descent” blog in support of what they’re saying as any kind of support whatsover for the position taken by that blog.

Evolution is extremely well-established science. It is one of the cornerstones of biology. You can reject it, but in so doing you’re rejecting the basic methodogy and mode of sciecne. And, I think that the evidence around us, the many huge successes science has had in describing our world and allowing us to manipulate it, makes rejecting science as a way of constructing reliable knowled rather absurd. New Atheists are sometimes befuddled by theists like myself who believe that there is wisdom in the Bible but reject things like the creation story as literal truth; how can you “pick and choose” is usually the sophomoric comment made in blog comment threads. Part of the reason of that is that in the intellectual mode of thought represented by science, you can’t pick and choose. You can, and all of us are, be more convinced by some lines of evidence than others. Dark Matter is assuredly real, for instance, but Dark Energy, while I think it is probably real, may instead be a pointer to cracks in our theories. But you can’t reject some lines of science because you don’t like the results philosophically, if the scientific evidence is there. And the evidence for evolution is there, completely and overwhelmingly. Reject evolution, be it by being a classical creationist or by being an Intelligent Design supporter, and whether you know it or not you are rejecting science itself.

As for why I say it is fraud, that is well documented. While there are trained scientists out there who believe in Intelligent Design, honest ones who’ve managed to confuse and convince themselves that there’s something to it, that’s not where Intelligent Design came from. This has been well documented, in the case of the Dover trial and elsewhere. The lobbying organizations who push Intelligent Design and those behind the movement aren’t scientists who beleive that they have a better theory, or even highly confused pseudoscientists like the backers of Plasma Cosmology, but they are (at least in the USA) Christians who think that science is a threat to their form of their religion. Intelligent Design was cleverly designed as a strategy to package creationism in such a way that it might be able to slip into school science curriculums where raw creationism was not able to. This is the way in which it is scientific fraud.

As for why it’s Bad Religion— I covered that five years ago in my post Intelligent Design: a trap for Christians. Precisely because it’s designed to sound scientistic, it allows Christians who think that accepting Christianity means that you can’t accept modern science, including Evolution, to think that they’re accepting science without having to reject their Christianity. But it’s a trap, because as I’ve already said, it’s not only bad science, it’s fradulent science.

The real truth is that you can do what I have done, what Guy Consalmango (the Vatican Astronomer) does, what Ken Miller does, and what all the signers of the Clergy Letter Project do: accept modern science for what it is! Yes, some put an interpretational spin on it— evolution, you might say, may be part of God’s engine of creation or some such. The difference, though, is that you don’t have to deny the utterly rock-solid scientific truth of biological evolution, of mutations mediated by natural selection leading to change in species and the development of new species over time. Yes, you will find lots of Christains out there who say that you’re fooling yourself by thinking you’re still Christian (or a follower of whatever other religion— again, I talk from my point of view). Yes, you will find New Atheists out there who will hurl all sorts of insults at you about being intellectually dishonest because you haven’t accepted the one true religion of atheism in your heart. (And you will be a bit struck by how the similar the fundamentalist atheists and fundamentalist Christians sound. Indeed, look at that Uncommon Descent post I linked to— they’re agreeing with the more annoying and frothy New Atheists such as the Jerry Coyne that things like Evolution Sunday and the Clergy Letter Project are no good. There’s more common ground between the New Atheists and Uncommon Descent than there is between me and Uncommon Descent!) But there are lots of us out there— probably not a majority, given how sadly strong the right-wing religion movement in the USA is today, but probably a plurality!— who are in the same position, the position of fully accepting modern science while recognizing that one may be an atheist or one may be a theist at the same time.

If you’re Christian, do not fall for the trap of Intelligent Design.

And if you’re atheist, don’t fall for the trap of New Atheism.

And, in any event, don’t take my arguing against Intelligent Design as evidence that I’m a New Atheist or that I hate religion, and don’t take my arguing against New Atheism as evidence that I’m in any way, shape, or form accepting of Intelligent Design.

The End of Nobel Week

The Sunday (Dec. 11) after the Nobel Prize ceremony was a slow and quiet day. I slept in a bit (due to having gone to bed so late the night of the cermoney), but not as much as I had intended. That was fine, though, as late in the afternoon I fell asleep, to wake up briefly in the evening, only to fall asleep again. So, the day before yesterday, I slept a lot. (If only you could bank sleep.) The one fun thing I did on Sunday was head down to the Vasa Museum. The Vasa was a ship that was launched in the early 17th century, commissioned by the then-king of Sweden, Gustavus Adolphus II. Its trip didn’t last long; on its first voyage, it tipped, took on water, and sank. In the mid-twentieth century, it was rasied again, and today forms the basis of a museum all about early 17th-century Swedish ships, shipbuilding, and life related to these things. The Vasa was a warship, loaded with cannon. At the time, Sweden was perenially at war with Poland (and sometimes Denmark as well). Ah, the Renaissance.

The Vasa

On Monday, I did a bit more gratuitous walking about Stockholm, and then in the afternoon there was a symposium at the Albanova University Center. This is where SCP member Ariel Goobar is headquartered, along with the graduate students and post-docs who have worked with him and continue to work with him. The symposium was introduced by saying that we’d heard a lot from Saul, Adam, and Brian at the Nobel Lectures; for these two hours, we’d hear from other members of the team. The three laureates moderated, while four different panels representing four different eras of the whole supernova search business gave short talklets about the prehistory of the whole thing. That included Rich Muller talking about the LBL robotic search, as well as Rich’s Nemesis idea that (if I am not mistaken) was the topic of Saul’s thesis, and Bob Kirshner talking about supernova work “back in the day” when he was the thesis advisor for both Brian Schmidt and Adam Reiss. It also included Richard Ellis talking about the original Danish high-redshift supernova search (which wasn’t really succesful; they found only one supernova, and after maximum light). Mark Phillips talked about the genesis of the Calan-Tololo supernova search, which established Type Ia supernovae as calibratable standard candles suitable cosmology, and whose supernovae served as the low-redshift comparison set for both high-redshift teams.

[Saul on the Phone]
Many people commented on Saul’s propensity for calling people at observatories, as Richard Ellis does here

The second panel was about the early days of the project. Carl Pennypacker, Brian Boyle, Heidi Newberg, and Warrick Couch talked about the early days of the SCP, when the weather was extremely frustrating, and Heidi figured she’d get a thesis out of it even if they didn’t manage to find even a single supernova. (The first supernova was found in 1992.) Nick Suntzeff talked about the genesis of the High-Z team.

The next batch of people included Alejandro Clocchiatti and Chris Smith from the High-Z team, and Peter Nugent and myself from the SCP. After Peter told a very funny story abuot observing at the CTIO and neary running over Brian Schmidt in a runaway CTIO volkswagon bug whose brakes had failed, it was difficult to follow myself. In the SCP, we’d only been told what the program was and what we were going to be talking about an hour or so before the thing began, and I had no idea what anybody else was going to say, so I didn’t really plan anything. The result was that I just blathered a little bit about Moore’s Law and computer (and network) technology having made it all possible, and I completely failed to make any of the two or three points I was hoping to make about what it was like to adopt the search software from Alex Kim and Ivan Small, and spend 40-hour days processing the data as it came in during a search run.

Next, Alex Filippenko, Isobel Hook, Chris Lidman, Ron Gilliland, Saurabh Jha, and Alex Kim talked about spectroscopy (showing off how much better an 8m telescope is than a 4m telescope for the more distant supernovae), using HST to observe supernovae, and some other things. Saurabh told an amusing story about performing the supernova photometry. Adam Reiss had been put in charge of the analysis that lead to the High-Z team’s discovery paper by team leader Brian Schmidt. Adam, in turn, had farmed out the work of getting the photometric lightcurves to several team members. When the due date came, he sent out an e-mail to all of them saying (I paraphrase) “thank you! Everybody but one (you know who you are) have turned in your data.” This made Saurabh, a young grad student at the time, feel terrible, because he was the one. He went nuts over the next 36 hours, and managed to get his data in. Only after that, running into Peter Garnevich and Ron Gilliland, did he figure out that in fact nobody had managed to get their data in, and Adam’s message wasn’t entirely serious.

Finally, Ariel Goobar, John Tonry, Peter Garnevich, and Craig Hogan talked about the cosmology analysis. Craig Hogan, the theorist, went last. He pointed out, as we all know, that while we’ve established that the Universe is accelerating, we don’t know why. “Dark Energy” is the name we give to the phenomenon, but we don’t know what it is, or even if it is stuff at all; it may in fact be that we’re seeing the breakdown of General Relativity. Craig and John did, at the end during a Q&A period, rain a bit on everybody’s parade by saying that this field is more or less a dead field. I’ve had similar feelings myself for a few years, but few would agree with me. There are parameters about Dark Energy that can be measured; my suspicion is that we’re just going to keep narrowing the errorbars around the default, not-terribly-interesting answer. (If the values are even slightly different from that answer, it’s extremely interesting. However, you can never prove that that answer is right, you can only shrink the error bars around it. There are arguments, however, why it’s not a waste of time to do this, and I won’t get into it here.)

During the Q&A period, Hubble Space Telescope director Matt Mountain asked a leading question about “can’t we all just get along?” He talked about repeated semesters where the HST time allocation committee would assign time to either Adam or to Saul; inevitably, he would then hear from the other one shortly thereafter. He suggested that with HST having only perhaps five years left, and nothing to follow it very soon, it was a crucial time for them to figure out ways in which the community as a whole could work together. Indeed, it sounded to me like he was inviting them to get together and put in a proposal to ask for a truly impressive amount of HST time, even more than the already-impressive amounts of time that has gone to supernova cosmology work. (This was what triggered Craig Hogan and John Tonry to caution that perhaps beating down the error bars on the two parameters we’ve identified, rather than trying to be more creative, might not be the best way to proceed.)

[Big Rodent]
For example, the human-sized rodent was pretty scary

After the symposium, both groups retired to the Junibcken museum, a museum dedicated to Swedish children’s litrature, in particular the stories of Astrid Lindgren (the author of the Pippi Longstockings books). (I have to admit to being nearly compltely ignorant about those.) We all rode their Story Train (in little cars of 3), that took us through 15-minute tour of lovingly recreated dioramas of scenes from these stories… none of which I recognized. I was sitting with Shane and Stormy Burns as we made the trip, and we agreed that these would probably be delightful to kids who were fans of the books. We also thought that some of the scenes would be quite scary.

At the end of the train ride was a dinner, for both of the teams together. Of course, at the end of the dinner, there were some speeches, which were all quite nice. Alex Filippenko— who started collaborating with Saul on the SCP, but defected to the High-Z team in what I gather was a rather unpleasant falling-out— gave a nice speech crediting the two teams’ differences with being strengths, as each team learned from the other. (And, of course, he mentioned, as did a man from the Royal Swedish Academy (whose name I didn’t get) involved in the Nobel selection, that the fact that there were two different teams with the same result is part of why the world couldn’t just dismiss it right away, as we so far have more or less done with the FTL neutrino result.) Several other peple told stories about various things, including Saul’s father, and the woman from the Swedish diplomat service who had been appointed as Saul’s liaison and shepherd during the whole process. She had only met Saul just this week, but said that she was impressed with how gracious he was talking to nearly everybody. Whether it was a 15-year-old or a colleague, he was always interested when talking to them.

[Santa Lucia]
Santa Lucia showed up to help banish the darkness; she brought with her a rather nice group of a capella singers who sang Christmas songs. At least, I think they were; but for “Deck the Halls”, they were all in Swedish.

In the end, several people remarked that it was unusal for a group this large, especailly including collabortors, to come out to the Nobel Prize Ceremony. Brian, Adam, and Saul may be the ones with the glory, they may be the ones that history will remember, but they did a good job of sharing some part of the glory with the rest of us during this week. Somebody (I forget who, but it may also have been Alex Filippenko) commented that it’s too bad that too many members of the public think that science is done by individuals working away all by themselves— antisocial individuals, even. For these groups that’s certainly not the case, and indeed this science could never have been accomplished in such a mode. The fact that the Nobel Prize celebrates individuals only serves to cement this model in the public mind. However, as I said, Saul, Brian, and Adam were very generous with making it clear that there are a lot of people who share the credit for this discovery.

And now I’m on my way home; I’ve composed this post in fits and starts along my way home, and won’t finish getting all the pictures embedded until after I’m home in Squamish. (I decided not to attend the Lucia Ball on the 13th, but to head home.)

This last evening, I also got what I think is the coolest souvenir of the trip. The Astrophysical Journal put out a special “Nobel” commemorative reprint of the Perlmutter ’99 paper (as well as the corresponding Riess ’98 paper, although I didn’t see that one). We were all given copies of it. At the end of the night, those of us who were still there passed the copies around to each other to sign. A few signatures are missing, but I do have this Nobel commemorative reprint with the signatures of Saul and all the other authors (including myself). That’s going to get framed and put on my office wall next to the Gruber prize!

[Signed Paper]
Perlmutter et al., 1999

I can’t help but get a wee bit choked up when I think about this last week— when I think about the fact that I was a major contributor to one of the coolest discoveries in science in the last couple of decades, and that the world has now recognized that discovery with its highest honor. It’s been quite a week.