It Finally Happened

The above is an artist’s conception* of the planet Kepler-186f, the first known Earth-sized planet to be located within its parent star’s habitable zone…other than the Earth itself, of course. The planet is located approximately 500 light years away. I have, of course, thought that such a discovery in the near future would be inevitable, but of course it just had to happen on the one year that I didn’t predict it.

Anyways, I think it’s pleasant to remember that, while Humanity roils around in its own troubles, the Earth managed to exist perfectly well for four and a half billion years before we existed, and there are an estimated eleven billions planets like ours in this galaxy alone.

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*Although I think that it’s rather premature to depict it as having water oceans and a nitrogen-oxygen atmosphere.

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Threats to Poilievre

Stephen Harper’s (Un)Democratic Reform Minister, Pierre Poilievre, has reputedly been receiving anonymous death threats over his proposed Fair Elections Act, prompting an RCMP investigation. Now, I want to make clear that I of course do not condone death threats*, and I have very little doubt that such threats were in fact made. Indeed, given that even c-list bloggers seem to illicit storms of death threats even when doing such comparatively unobjectionable things as giving popular games bad reviews, I would imagine that practically every front-bencher in parliament, especially ones as notorious as Pierre Poilievre, has been sent at least a few threats during their careers.

However: I am deeply suspicious of Poilievre’s motives in bringing in the RCMP to investigate a 73 year old retiree for sending him a tersely worded e-mail (which happened, apparently, to be sent at around the same time as the threat).  Let’s look at the context here: this is a government which has thus far dealt with critics of its oil sands policy by labeling them as “terrorists”, and critics of its online surveillance policy by labeling them as “child molesters.**” This is a government which has never, insofar as I can recall, engaged in any sort of intellectually honest dialogue with its critics on any subject whatsoever, but is instead constant in its attempts to poison the well. My point is that this is Standard Operating Procedure for the Tories. How long is it before Harper and his lackeys will start holding up this anonymous threat to tar all opponents of the Act as violent, marginal extremists?

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*In fact, I would even go so far as to say that if you think that you can defend democracy by threatening to murder elected officials if they don’t bend to your personal will, I’m not sure what system you’re supporting, but it certainly isn’t democracy.

**This does not even mention their endless parade of smears against “elitist” scientists, opposition voters, artists, academics, unions, media, and public policy experts; to say nothing of personalized campaigns of character assassination against whistle-blowers, opposition leaders, and public figures.

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Why Are There No “Sociopolitical Popularizers?”

I recently had an intense discussion with a friend of mine in the social sciences, who was incensed that scientists were so ignorant of, and reflexively hostile towards sociopolitical critiques of science. I think this person had a fair point in saying that most scientists who lashed out at “postmodernism*” had no real understanding of what they were criticizing, but at the same time, I thought that it was a little bit unfair to expect scientists to have specialist knowledge in someone else’s field. I myself (having no pretense of understanding sociopolitical theory) have tried, on occasion, to gain an absolute basic knowledge of the subject, particularly as it relates to its critiques of science. I have come away with the impression that it is inherently hostile to empiricism, and therefore does not have any mechanism in place to distinguish between science and pseudoscience.

Now, I’m perfectly willing to believe (as specialists have told me) that my naive reading of the subject is incorrect. But in view of the fact that a naive reading is the best that the overwhelming majority of scientists can reasonably be expected to have, is it any surprise that so many of us eye such critiques suspiciously?

Since I had this discussion though, I’ve started wondering: why do such critiques seem so inaccessible to lay readers? I mean, it seems like systematic critiques of science could be a tremendously useful thing for practicing scientists themselves to learn about. It would obviously have to be simplified, and useless for the purposes of original research, but surely it must be possible at least to describe these theories in a way that a nonspecialist could understand the gist of them–in much the same way, perhaps ironically, that science popularizers can give broad descriptions of, say, general relativity.

If such primers for lay readers do exist, then I would certainly be interested in reading any that could be recommended. If, on the other hand, they do not exist, then why do they not exist?

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*Here to be interpreted as a catchall phrase for “all sociopolitical critiques produced in the last 40 years or so.”

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Arrogance or Experience

My tutoring contract has now, sadly, expired, leaving me with only one source of income left to me: freelance editing of scientific and engineering papers written by scholars from Japan and China. I can’t discuss the specifics of anything that I have done, as it involves unpublished original research and is therefore confidential*, but I am enjoying it. I would certainly prefer something with regular hours**, but I appreciate the chance to exercise my writing skills while still remaining current with developments in physics–including those branches with which I would not have cause to remain current in the normal course of my studies.

All of this has brought me to a shocking discovery, namely: Every other branch of physics is way more comprehensible than high-energy theory.

Now, I’ve suspected this for quite a while, to be honest–I’ve heard my friends in experimental particle physics tell me that they only had to use four equations in their entire Master’s Thesis***, for example–but until now, I’ve never had it so directly illustrated for me. I suppose that the main difference is that other branches of physics concern themselves with things that are actually, concretely, known to exist, and as such naturally tend to take on a vastly less speculative character. But on the other hand, I frankly think that a lot of theoretical physicists are woefully inept at conveying their findings in anything approaching an accessible fashion. To read a high-energy theoretical physics paper, one must fight their way through heaps of untranslated technical jargon and poorly fleshed-out derivations to get to the point, whereas in other branches, scholars seem far more careful to explain what it is that they are actually talking about. As I said, part of this is intrinsic to the discipline, but another part of this is certainly due to the inclination of the writer. Simply put, as someone with experience in the field, I think that there is a bit of a culture in theoretical physics which favours “showing off” over explaining things clearly.

While most theoretical physicists entered their field out of a sincere desire to learn as much as they can about the Universe, I feel that there is a significant minority who are in it primarily to gain cultural capital for being brilliant.  Showing off is typically done using such techniques as dismissing certain derivations as being “trivial,” rather than giving them the attention that they deserve, and being unable even to get through your abstract without forcing your readers to navigate their way through several paragraphs of densely-written jargon. All of this is, of course, calculated to illicit a certain reaction from their readers, namely, “Good Heavens! This scholar is so brilliant that this is simple to them!” or words to this effect. This is, essentially, the textual manifestation of the “asshole phenomenon” in academia.

Now, none of this is to say that theoretical high-energy physics is not very complicated–perhaps even more complicated than any other branch of physics. But needlessly complicating it further as a sort of intellectual pissing contest really needs to stop.

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*And, in at least one case, proprietary.

**To say nothing of a higher rate of pay.

***My thesis required 118 numbered equations, and at least a dozen more that weren’t important enough to separate out from the main body of the text.

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Quantum Immortality and Me

One of the most controversial scientific hypotheses to emerge from the Many Worlds interpretation of quantum theory is known as “quantum immortality.” While it does have the ring of New Age tripe, it at least has the benefit of having been postulated by a number of legitimate physicists.

The idea can, essentially, be summarized as follows: If the laws of physics are, at base, quantum mechanical, then they are probabilistic rather than deterministic. And, even though probability fluctuations tend to even-out on macroscopic, high-temperature scales (such as those on which Human life takes place), the outcome of any event governed by the laws of physics  must therefore ultimately be a matter of probability. Now, the Many Worlds interpretation holds that a separate universe exists for every different possible outcome of an event. Supposing that we are talking about a life-threatening event–say, a bomb which has a fifty/fifty chance of exploding based upon the spin value that it measures for a proton–it would follow that there would be one universe in which you would survive, and another, equally-probably universe in which you would have died. However; in order for you to be conscious of the event, you must, by definition, have survived. Extending this logic, we can see that your consciousness must exist in a universe where it survives, regardless of the circumstance. Thus, we have a sort of “subjective immortality”: any consciousness will perceive itself as never dying, even as its continued survival grows more and more improbable; circumstances will always conspire to keep such a consciousness alive, at least from its own perspective*.

Speculation in this direction always leads me back to the same question: under what circumstances would you start to regard this hypothesis as being true? Under what circumstances do you think that it would be reasonable to start believing that you could never die?

From my own personal experience, I can honestly say that I would need to be at least three hundred years older than anyone else I knew of, and I would need to have survived at least ten major events which, by rights should have killed me.

“My own personal experience,” did I say? Why yes, I did. You see, circumstances have recently conspired to convince me, by the standard of proof that I have just named, that I cannot die. I am already more than four hundred years old, and just yesterday I withstood my tenth all-but-fatal event–an unfortunate run in with a locomotive, which, “miraculously,” left me with only a few scratches. Add to that my nine of previous bouts with death (which need hardly be described at this juncture, but which include such notable episodes as contracting typhus, being shipwrecked, and charging with the light brigade) and I don’t think that I am being unreasonable in supposing that I am living proof of immortality.

It’s hard to nail down a firm date for when I was born–changes in the calendar and such– but my mother always told me that it was the summer before the Spanish Armada set sail for England, which would put the year at 1587. It’s hard not to slip into a sort of vulgar solipsism when life seems so subjective, but after a few centuries, you start to get the hang of it.

Try not to be surprised; when you think about it, this makes a lot of sense. How else, after all, would I manage to know so many obscure facts about history but from having lived through it? And honestly: does my written English not come across as strangely quaint and old-fashioned (not to say archaic)? Perhaps you have even surmised why I feel such a connection to the novel “Orlando: A Biography“: it is because it is literally my life story, as narrated by my dear old friend Virginia Woolf, who knew me back when I was calling myself Vita Sackville-West.

So why, you ask, am I revealing all of this to you now? I can say only that it feels good to get this confession off of my chest–and to do it on the one day when I know for a fact that it will have no lasting repercussions, for the very simple reason that no one will believe me.

The one day known as “April Fools Day.”

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*Robert Charles Wilson has a good short story on the subject, outlining what an unpleasant fate this actually is.

 

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Irrational Exuberance, New Space, and Jaime Holding a Bucket of Cold Water

So as you know, I really like space. And I am as excited as anyone to think about new developments in space exploration. However, I am in a minority of the international space community when I admit that I’m not at all sanguine about the NewSpace industry.

When I was in Strasbourg last year, this was the hot topic about which  everyone was talking: Passenger spaceflightAsteroid mining; Voyages to Mars. And all of them being done by the private sector alone!

Now, I think that it’s this last point which generates much of the buzz, because of course we’ve been hearing for decades about all of the amazing things that NASA is going to do, only to be disappointed time and time again*; add to that a certain strain of Heinleinian libertarianism built-in to the space community by way of science fiction, and it’s unsurprising that so many people would be so very enthusiastic about the promises of NewSpace.

And then, of course,  there’s me.  As a physicist, it’s hard for me not get at least a little bit excited by what is supposedly on offer. But I’m not just a physicist: I am also an historian and a bit of a cynic. I am, first of all, skeptical of the underlying assumptions of libertarian ideology; from what I have seen, the private is good at funding commercial research, and very good at capitalizing on fundamental research conducted by government and academia, but when it comes to funding its own fundamental research–such as would presumably be necessary for many of the projects being proposed–the private sector is not what it’s cracked-out to be. Add to that the irrational exuberance, the people who are willing to pay exorbitant sums of money for products which do not technically exist, and the companies whose business plans range from “questionable” to “dodgy,” and the whole thing begins to look like a great, big, economic bubble that’s just waiting to burst.

You could make the argument that it’s good to make the public excited about space one way or the other, and to some extent I suppose that that is true. But if the whole thing turns out to be a bust, how easy will it be to be to excite them again–and not just about private space travel, but about space travel in general? We must tread carefully on this topic.

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*That’s not to denigrate their legitimate accomplishments in any way, but let’s face facts:  the space shuttle never worked as advertised, a manned voyage to Mars has been promised and promised again over the last three decades, the International Space Station was far behind schedule, and it has been forty years since anyone set foot on the Moon.

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The New Cultural Bogeyman

Feeling a touch masochistic, I scrolled down and read some of the comments in that article about which I just posted. One in particular, by a fellow named “weylguy” caught my eye:

I’ve lived in small and medium-sized towns in Illinois and Missouri.

The primary reason I have always disparaged the South and the Midwest is the religious dogma the region has locked itself into and its associated ongoing (if now slightly muted) racism. To cite just one example, you would never see a Creation Museum in California like you do in Kentucky, while Massachusetts would not tolerate widespread KKK membership, like one sees in the South.

But times are changing, and I suspect that eventually these regions will be brought kicking and screaming into the 21st century.

Of course it was answered by someone named “Karl Hungus323″ who helpfully pointed out:

 You’ll also never see boys walking into girls bathrooms in Missouri because they feel like a girl that day.

Now, one thing that I will ask you to notice about the original comment–as well as the article directly preceeding it–is that it in no way referenced transgenderism in any way. Karl Hungus apparently just brought it up out of the blue because it seemed like a natural way for him to defend the existence of the Ku Klux Klan: “why yes, we do have massive widespread racism and ultra-right wing terrorist groups, but at least we don’t have those dirty sh*males.”

This seems like a perfect example of what I have long feared: it seems that, with Gay Rights having now become somewhat mainstream*, my identity is to become the new front in the Culture War.

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*That’s not to say, by the way, that there isn’t still massive structural heterosexism in society, well beyond the issues of who is allowed to marry whom; I mean only that homophobic rhetoric on the part of mainstream politicians seems to have been largely forced into “dog-whistle territory.”

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