The Summer of 2018 – By The Numbers

The sun sets over Green Bay in Wisconsin. As this summer draws to a close, some reflections on the events of this period… by the numbers.

The summer of 2018 was both predictable and unexpected. As I began reflecting on this past summer, now that teaching is nearly upon me again, I came to find numbers that represented its many aspects. I want to share some of those numbers with you, and the meaning behind them.

Let me begin by clarifying something: for a research professor, summer begins the day after spring graduation and it continues until August 1, which marks the tolling of the last bell at midnight. August first is the beginning of the new day, the month that heralds the bright and blinding sunlight of teaching at month’s end. The research activities have ended, and the teaching preparation begins. It’s crucial to steal time for vacation during this period as well, or you’ll go mad.

Author’s Note: I originally wrote this several weeks ago, before the start of classes. As is typical, the end of summer and the beginning of teaching hits like a freight train you never see coming. And though I did see it coming, I somehow still never saw it coming.

72 [Days of Summer]

That’s the number of days from the first day after Spring Commencement to August 1. I would define that as “academic summer.” Those are the number of days in which to pack as much research as you humanly can, while also putting your life back onto something resembling the “regular schedule of research.” For me, that means interweaving home life (such as it is in the summer for two roving research professors) with personal time (exercise, etc.) and work (time with research students, time in meetings, etc.). For 72 days I can largely avoid class prep… or, at least, serious thoughts of class prep. But after that, I can avoid no longer.

It’s not that I don’t love teaching. It’s that I understand and respect that if allowed to take all the space it wants it will get all the space I have. Research is a precious and fragile thing that much be protected at all costs. Without research, there would be nothing new to teach. You cannot have one without the other, but one of these tries at all times to steal away all the time from the other. Like a helicopter parent, I must hover over my research time, protect it from outsiders, and shield it against the endless demands of teaching. If it dies, my reason for teaching (and thus my love of teaching) also dies.

59 [Days Apart from Jodi]

Those were the number of days apart from Jodi this summer. In point of fact, once Jodi moved to Santa Barbara in March to begin her time as a resident expert for the cold dark matter workshop at the Kavli Institute of Theoretical Physics (KITP), we were apart for all but a few weeks between mid-March and August 1. But since I’m just counting summer (as defined above), I’ll spare the more sob version of this story.

Jodi and I sit in a room at KITP during a weekend visit to see her in early May. KITP was her home for about 3 months in the spring and early summer.

Our geographic separation was really for all the right professional reasons. I had two classes to teach at SMU this past spring; Jodi had a semester off teaching (made up for by teaching two classes in the Fall) so that she could fully participate in the KITP workshop. In addition to getting to work with the brightest minds in her fields, discussing new ideas for experiments, evidence for and against theoretical notions, and a host of other matters, this also looped her back into being interviewed for public radio’s “Science Friday” program

By the time Jodi landed back in Dallas to return to our “normal life,” I was was gone to see my parents in Connecticut before a 3 week visit to CERN. I returned in July for two weeks, having about 9 days together with her before I returned to CERN for another two-week stint. During my 14 days at home, she had a collaboration meeting for her experiment. That took her to Canada. These are all perfectly normal summer activities for two research physicists in very different sub-fields. Nonetheless, this constant “apartness” wears a couple down.

34 [Days at CERN]

This is the number of days I spent at CERN this summer. It’s about a 9 hour flight to an airport in Europe, followed by a two(-ish) hour connecting flight to Geneva. I mixed it up this summer, going first from JFK airport to Geneva (after visiting my parents in Connecticut) and the second time from Dallas to Geneva. In both cases, I went via London. In both cases, the trips were their usual “long” but thankfully also mostly “uneventful”. As I told anyone who would listen this summer, I’d be very happy if airlines gassed me to knock me out for all of these flights and revived me at my destination. At least, then, I would get some goddamned sleep on these flights.

Flying from JFK (NY) to Heathrow (London) on my way to CERN. The gold stars mark places I have visited over my life (and spent more than 24 hours there, and not only in an airport).

The first block of time at CERN was a carefully planned list of specific activities, many of which were tossed to the side when it was decided to push for a summer result in the big analysis on which we work, the study of the direct interaction of the Higgs particle and the bottom quark. The second block of time at CERN was also carefully planned, a “cleanup operation” after the first block to sweep up projects that fell to the side. It was also completely shaken up by the need to complete a highly time-sensitive task in the realm of the ATLAS trigger system. We did it, but by the time I returned home I was way behind on a bunch of other stuff that also needed my attention.

A view along a road inside CERN, bordering a vineyard on the south side. The sun is setting over the Jura Mountains.

Still, 34 days at CERN made for some amazing accomplishments and memories for this summer, and really for this entire year. My graduate students are both in excellent positions to launch the final stages of their Ph.D. work. My most recent post-doc is moving forward into a data science position in industry, and I’m in the process of hiring another scientist to work with me on Higgs physics and to collaborate with and supervise the students. And, to boot, my summer research undergraduate made some amazing progress in learning to simulate the behaviors of gluons, behaviors we’ll need for the project that is the basis of her senior thesis work.

14 [Pounds I won’t miss]

This is the number of pounds I lost this summer thanks to a renewed focus on foods and exercise. I made a regular habit (4-5 days each week) of exercising for at least 30 minutes with aerobic impact (getting my heart rate high and keeping it there). I gently extended my runs (running was my primary exercise) over a period of months, until recently I could comfortably achieve 5-6 mile runs at a single shot. At my peak, over a year ago, I could run between 10-11 miles… but this was also a time when I was not stretching enough or recovering enough between long runs, and I injured my hip, hamstring, and later my right foot. It took about a year to recover from all of that, setting me back quite a bit.

My weight, tracked using electronic devices. You can see the creep upward during my stressful and inactive spring, and the push downward as I altered my diet and exercise back to healthy norms.

However, once I recommitted this summer I made good progress toward my long-term goal of (1) sustained exercise, (2) a normal and balanced diet with emphasis on fruits and vegetables, and (3) a goal-weight of 175lbs. That final goal, which is really just a number to shoot for, has been my goal since 2012 when I made my first sustained attempt to alter my lifestyle. Since then. I’ve knocked off 5-15 lbs per year, depending on the year. This summer began with me around 202 lbs, up from my low of about 190 lbs over a year ago. Now I am sitting at 188 lbs. The most important thing I that I have endurance and clarity as a result of the balanced portfolio of work, exercise, and diet.

2 [Discoveries]

This is the number of discoveries that resulted from projects I’m involved in this summer. It’s pretty hard for a physicist on a large experiment to take sole credit for anything, and I don’t deserve sole credit for these even in my wildest dreams. But to be part of two major discoveries in one summer was a hallmark of a pretty damned good summer. 

A representation of the data ATLAS used in 2018 to observe the direct interaction of the Higgs particle and bottom quark.

The first I’ve written about here before, because it’s the easier-to-care-about one: the direct observation of the Higgs particle and the Bottom quark (the second-heaviest quark) interacting with each other. This could not be observed during the first run of the LHC; despite the fact that this is the strongest and most prevalent interaction of the Higgs particle with a building block of nature (at least, in a direct sense), seeing this behavior required much more data and a vastly sharper “lens” than we had available in Run 1. By Run 2, we had honed our ability to understand and fight background processes that obscure the signal; we had improved our ability to sharpen the reconstructed properties of the Higgs boson, making them easier to see even on top of a noisy pile of confounding data; we performed vastly more simulation of the worst backgrounds, those most likely to “fake” the signature of this process and confuse our observations; we combined our work with independent searches for the same process from within the ATLAS experiment, effectively multiplying the data by a little to boost the signal. All of this together pushed us over the threshold for observation. It was a wondrous thing to see in the data.

A 12 minute animation explaining the observation of the direct interaction of the Higgs particle and the bottom quark.

The second discovery was a bit more esoteric, but no less important. In combining our measurements with other independent measurements from within the ATLAS experiment, we also discovered definitively a specific means of production of the Higgs particle. 

Prior to this, the most prevalent means of production, dubbed “Gluon Fusion,” had already been observed in the first run of the LHC. Given the fact that we smash protons into protons, and at these energies protons are mostly sticky bags of gluons, it’s no surprise that this is the first means by which we saw Higgs particles definitively produced.

The second means of production, surmised before the start of the LHC and evidenced in Run 1 (with definitive observation in Run 2) was “Vector Boson Fusion,” the analog of gluon fusion except this time it’s the exchange of massive “vector bosons” by quarks inside the proton that results in the production of a Higgs particle.

The fourth-largest means of production was observed earlier this year when the direct interaction of Higgs particles and top quarks was seen first by the CMS Experiment, and then by ATLAS. How did we skip to fourth? Well, while the Higgs and bottom quark interaction results in the most frequent decay of the Higgs particle, the bare coupling of the Higgs and the top quark (the largest such bare coupling in the Standard Model), combined with the unique signature of top quarks, a bit harder to miss than the Higgs and bottom quark interaction. This production mechanism is known as “Top Quark-Associated Production.”

As part of the Higgs and bottom quark observation, we also observed the third-largest production mechanism: “Vector Boson-Associated Production,” also known as “Higgsstrahlung.” What does this mean? It’s a production mechanism by which one first makes a vector boson, such as W or Z. That’s relatively copious at the LHC. It’s what happens next that is more rare. Not quite at the right mass-energy, the vector boson radiates a particle and “drops down” to its happiest mass-energy state. In this case, what is radiated is a whopping great Higgs particle. Thus the name “Vector Boson-Associated Production” of the Higgs particle. Why “Higgsstrahlung?” Well, “Bremsstrahlung” – the root word for this nomenclature – is German for “Braking Radiation.” It’s the radiation (light) emitted by charged particles (especially electrons) when they are forced to alter their flight trajectories, like brake lights flashing on when a car has to hit the brakes and swerve to avoid a collision. “Higgstrahlung” is an honorary name for the process of a vector boson (a cousin of the photon of light) radiating a Higgs particle. 

3 [Major things I actually did myself this summer]

“What is it you say you do here?”

Bob Slydell to Tom Smykowski, “Office Space” (1999)

What do faculty do? It’s an often repeated question, whispered behind the back of faculty by students, undergraduate and graduate alike. Do faculty just sit in their offices all day, waiting for students to walk in and interrupt their train of thought with a question? Do faculty spend most of their time writing grant proposals, failing to get grants, and complaining about grant proposals? Are they faking it? I bet they’re faking it.

Here’s what I did this summer, to justify my existence as a scientist, that didn’t involve telling other people what to do:

  1. I took over as developer and maintainer of StudyTrigTracks, a software framework for performing simulation- and data-based studies of bottom-quark-initiated jet triggers. I immediately fixed some redundancy in the code and made it a but more stumble-proof than it had been. I should know. I am very good at stumbling. Mostly I have to protect myself from me.
  2. Using StudyTrigTracks, I reproduced an analysis originally developed in 2017 to assess the performance, in data, of bottom-quark-initiated jet triggers. This resulted in a new assessment of the performance of the same triggers in 2018 data, using about 16/fb of data. This, in turn, resulted in a public plot for all ATLAS physicists (and anyone else) to use in presentations and posters. This is the first time I have personally generated such a public plot to stand alone on its own.

    From this and the 2017 figure, I made (privately) the morphing animation below (my own creation, not officially from ATLAS). Note the stability of the algorithms.
  3. I rewrote a bunch of code for a paper I am co-authoring with a former student, now a Ph.D. student at Stanford. She and I never had a chance to finish this paper 2 years ago, but we have the chance now. This involved adding a bunch of new inputs to the code, verifying the original code (written by my colleague), and generating updated figures for our paper using some new tools: MatPlotLib, Pandas, Seaborn, and SciPy. I had a LOT of fun working on this. We expect to wrap this paper up in the next couple of months.
A morphing animation of the 2017 and 2018 data performances of b-jet triggers. These were supposed to be flat with increasing proton-proton collisions (they are) and stable from year to year (they are).

Unknown [Number of Lines of Code Written this Summer]

If progress in software-based physics can be proxied by the number of lines of code you write in one block of time, then let’s just go with “innumerable”. I mean, I could use git to count the lines of code contributed across the half-dozen packages I worked on this summer. But… no. It’s the end of summer. I need a break.

A graph from Gitlab of my activity levels in software development during May-August. Darker blue means more active (this is a “heat map” plot). Grey means inactive.

10 [Postcards sent from CERN]

This is the number of postcards I sent from CERN this summer. 8 of these were for my four nieces and nephews (2 for each of them the two separate blocks of time I was at CERN this summer). One was for one of my sisters-in-law, and one was for a person I went to school with when I was young. 

The latter is perhaps the most interesting. He was interested in the mathematics and the equations that we use to describe the universe. I sent him a “Standard Model” postcard from CERN, pictured below with my notes summarizing each piece of the equation. Of course, this is a very compact and simplified version of the Standard Model. Nonetheless, it captures the essential ingredients, even if it lacks serious detail.

The front of the postcard
The back of the postcard

Anti-Steve: The Week in Review (2/20)

The infant checklist for the electrostatic shield prototype run (see below). Just one small part of this exciting week.
The infant checklist for the electrostatic shield prototype run (see below). Just one small part of this exciting week.

I thought it might be nice to use this blog to . . . you know . . . actually blog. “Blog” is derived from “Web Log,” a journal or log kept by a person but broadcast publicly on the web. So in this week’s inaugural “Anti-Steve” [1], here are some things that happened this week that I found interesting or notable in my own life.

Continue reading “Anti-Steve: The Week in Review (2/20)”

A good example of a bad argument

Recently, a two new studies of multivitamins and their efficacy for purposes other than vitamin deficiency were published in the Annals of Internal Medicine [1][2]. One study looks at using multivitamins to improve outcomes after myocardial infarction, and finds no evidence of a benefit. The second study looks at measurable outcomes of cognitive function in men who take a multivitamin, and finds no positive benefit to supplementation. These are just two  studies in a growing body of evidence (c.f. [3][4]) that shows that the primary and overwhelming thing that vitamin supplementation is good for is curing a vitamin deficiency. In general, there are many more popular claims about the wonders of vitamin supplementation than there are actual, high-quality scientific studies of those claims. The latest pair of articles were brought to my attention by a friend on Twitter, and what resulted from their post was a classic example of a bad argument.

Continue reading “A good example of a bad argument”

The Parallel Universes of Science and Anti-Science

A real skyscraper, and its distorted reflection created by the windows of a nearby skyscraper.
The real skyscraper on the left is built with the laws of Nature, determined by careful experimentation and critical thinking over hundreds of years. If one were to instead use the rules of design apparent in the distorted mirror reflection of the real skyscraper, the distorted twin could not stand in the real world. Photo from Ref. 1.

Finding Parallel Worlds

In the series “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine,” a well-crafted transporter modification is capable of hurling the crew of the station into a “mirror universe.” Everyone who exists in the known universe also exists in the mirror universe, but there they are not the same people. Major Kira Nerys, a member of the Bajoran Militia who fights for Bajoran freedom in the known universe, is instead Intendant Kira Nerys who serves the enslaving Alliance in the mirror universe.

Science fiction writers dream of parallel universes, and wonder at what it would be like for mirror people  to meet one another. If they are truly mirrored, and are biological copies of one another, what differences would then be found by considering the exclusive sums of their unique experiences?

I have often dreamed of parallel universes, both in my science fiction-fueled fantasies but also in the real language of quantum physics. What if the universe I know is just one of many possible universes, separated only by the spectrum of quantum probabilities inherent in every interaction between my subatomic constituents? These thoughts interest me, but ultimately only insofar as they can be tested and have real consequences outside of science fiction.

Distorted Mirror Universes

I have learned, however, over the past decade of the existence of real multiple parallel universes. They are not quantum dreams, but rather political and social realities that are attempting to redefine the very meaning of “reality” so as to save something that they, in their universe, define as “value” and “culture.”

One need not look far to find these parallel worlds. You don’t need a transporter accident or a Large Hadron Collider to find and observe them. Sometimes you need only go so far as an accredited university, like Liberty University or Life University; sometimes, you need only pick up a book or turn on the radio, so as to read or hear the words of people like David Barton; sometimes you need only subscribe to a blog from organizations like The Heartland Institute or The Discovery Institute.

These places and people define a parallel universe, one that mirrors, with distortion, the real laws of nature. In these distorted mirror universes, they use scientific or academic language, but no actual science or academics. These universes often are set up as equal but opposite to the real world; their proponents claim they are just as good or better than the real world, and that living in them is just as good or better than living in the real world. To the builders and shapers of these parallel universes, their reality is just as valid as the reality of the natural world. So . . . why wouldn’t you want to go live in that universe instead of the real one?

It’s all about USEFULNESS

While it is true that the belief in a single reality governed by a single set of consistent laws is, in fact, a belief (that is, I cannot prove to you that there is only one reality with a single set of consistent laws), that belief is distinct from all other beliefs because of a single property: USEFULNESS. The belief that my reality is the same as your reality allows you and I to agree that what happens in my view also happens in your view. We can agree on things (at least, fundamentally). We can agree that apples fall from trees, that ice melts at zero degrees Celsius under conditions of standard temperature and pressure, and that when I punch you in the arm it hurts you in a way that is similar to that experienced by me if you were to punch my arm. Being able to accept the belief that there is one reality with one set of governing laws allows you and I to make progress – that is, to develop a single and transferable library of knowledge that can be expanded and always consistently applied to create new knowledge.

If we cannot agree on such things – if we believe the world is purely subjective or a product of one’s own will or imagination – then the above cannot be true. Apples might rise in your universe but fall in mine. When ice melts, it does so for you at a different temperature on the Celsius scale at standard temperature and pressure. When you punch me in the arm, you believe that it doesn’t have the same biological consequences as when I punch you in the arm. There can be no laws of physics. There can be no chemistry. There can be no biology (or empathy . . . which then leads down the road to sociopathy . . . ). In a world where subjectivism rules, chaos follows. There can be no progress. There can be no single body of transferable knowledge, since all experiences will be different even given the same initial conditions.

Science and the scientific method are built on the assumption of objectivism – that there is a single objective reality upon which we can all agree, in so far as we can study the natural world and determine the its rules. You and I, under identical conditions, will observe and report identical things (within the tolerances of measurement uncertainty, of course). Without that assumption, science falls apart. Science is the means by which the single, transferable library of knowledge is generated.

Please note that, at no time in the above discussion, has using science required that there be nothing “supernatural.” One is only required to follow an fundamentally objectivist belief system to then successfully use science. At heart, you don’t have to be an atheist, or a deist, or a religious fundamentalist, or any other “-ist” except “objectivist.” No other “-isms” except “objectivism” are required – no “materialism,” no “socialism,” no “conservatism,” no “liberalism.” You can be those things, and still practice science as long as you are following objectivism. The supernatural is allowed – but science cannot explain it, because by definition anything outside the natural world cannot be measured or quantified and falls beyond the scope of the scientific method.

The photograph at the top of this post was chosen on purpose, because it illustrates in a single image exactly the argument I will advance here. The skyscraper on the left is the real deal – it was built with materials from the natural world, using principles based on the laws of physics and chemistry; its environmental regulation systems are designed based on the principle that biological organisms like people require a certain range of humidity and temperature in order to work and live comfortably. That building was only possible because, at heart, those who developed the laws upon which it is constructed made the assumption that there is a single reality.

If objectivism were a useless assumption then it would bear no fruit  and would itself be USELESS. Because objectivism is USEFUL – it allows the laws of mechanics, thermodynamics, and electromagnetism to be determined, all of which are needed to make a skyscraper –  it generates progress.

The skyscraper on the right is a distorted reflection of the real deal. If you used the distorted rules of design and form and mechanism apparent in the view on the right, and tried to make that happen in the real world, chances are that the skyscraper so built would collapse or decay very quickly. In other words, if one takes a distorted view of reality, teaches it to others, and then applies it in the real world (where it is not USEFUL), then chances are good that it will fail and become USELESS, being cast aside for more USEFUL ideas.

The notion of USEFULNESS is at the heart of science. It’s why science is so successful as a way of knowing. Tastes may change in art, music, social convention, and politics, but so far as we know the laws of physics, chemistry, and biology are unchanging and timeless. They apply just as well a million years ago as they do today. Try applying U.S. political assumptions in Russia; try convincing Leonardo Da Vinci that Jackson Pollack had it all right; try getting J. S. Bach and Black Flag to agree on the definition of “profound music.” Science is useful because it provides a regular structure on which to create and innovate. The laws of mechanics explain how to understand and generate sound; on that, music for all tastes can be created. The laws of chemistry and quantum physics define how to create color and texture in paints; on top of that, beautiful schematics of the human form or frenetic explosions of shape and color can be built. The laws of biology define the way in which adaptation and reproduction influences survival and how the environment challenges adaptation and reproduction; on top of that, vast social systems can be built.

The Making of the  Distorted Mirror

When scientists fight against the forces of anti-science, they do it in the spirit of “correcting the record.” In a world where objectivism rules, this would work; reasonable minds would be forced, in the end, to agree that one party is right (their description is consistent with objective reality) and the other is wrong (their description runs counter to what is known of objective reality).

However, fighting the forces of anti-science this way misses the point of what those forces are doing.  The forces of anti-science are not conducting their battle in the real world, in the objective reality; they are conducting a battle using the rules of a world THEY created. They are fighting a battle in their world, where the notion of a single objective reality does not apply. Recognizing this fact is the key to making a first step is truly battling the forces of anti-science.

A scientist might, for instance, argue based on the laws of physics that building a skyscraper like the one in the reflection above is ludicrous; any reasonable person can see that it won’t stand, that it’s a threat to the lives of the people who would go to work in it. But that argument misses the point; the point is that the anti-engineers who have proposed building the skyscraper on the right have done so according to the following propositions:

  • There are at least two objective realities (in the language of the forces of anti-science, “two opposing views”); their rules work just fine in their reality, our rules work just fine in ours, and intelligent people can decide for themselves which reality is the correct one. You get your facts, I get mine. No one has a monopoly on the truth.
  • It is enough to think about these things to come to a decision; logic and reason are sufficient forms of evidence, without the need for observational and physical evidence.

Once you understand that these are the rules of the anti-science game, you can begin to develop strategies to deal with it.

Let’s explore these propositions a bit further, to see how they lead to a distorted view of the world. These propositions have little to nothing to do with real science, of course; they have to do with values and cultures. These propositions allow the construction of a mirror universe comfortable to values and cultures, without regard to facts about the natural world. They allow dogma and misunderstanding to become the founding principles of the mirror universe.

By dogma, I mean statements like, “X is true because it must be so” (or, ” . . . because I want it to be so”). By misunderstanding of the laws of the real world, I means statements like, “The law of Natural Selection cannot be true because it leads to atheism,” which is a misunderstanding of the actual implications of the law of Natural Selection. The second type of statement goes hand-in-hand with the first. For instance, consider this typical set of dogma and misunderstanding that is used to construct things like Intelligent Design and Creationism:

  1. God must exist. [dogma]
  2. The Law of Natural Selection eliminates completely the need for God to exist. [misunderstanding]
  3. Therefore, the Law of Natural Selection must be wrong. [hypothesis]

Note that no evidence is required to formulate the hypothesis made at the end. The hypothesis is based on an assertion of dogma and a complete misunderstanding of a law of nature. Disconfirming evidence – evidence that rejects the hypothesis – will then be ignored and confirming evidence (supporting the hypothesis) will be trumpeted. That is pseudoscience. One obtains a distorted version of reality wherein the Law of Natural Selection is cast aside and replaced with something else, such as Intelligent Design.

Creating the mirror universe based on the above line of argument is a way of establishing a place where other hypotheses, which feel comfortable, can be preserved. For instance, consider a related hypothesis formed as follows:

  1. God is the only source of ethical behavior. [dogma]
  2. The Law of Natural Selection eliminates the need for God to exist. [misunderstanding]
  3. Therefore, the Law of Natural Selection leads to unethical behavior. [hypothesis]

If one’s view is that the absolute above cannot be violated, then it would be more comfortable to live in a universe where the subsequent hypothesis is true.

Here is another one:

  1. Ancient humans led better lives than modern humans. [dogma]
  2. Ancient humans used to collect plants in the swamp and consume them for medicine. [misunderstanding]
  3. Therefore, swamp plants collected by ancient humans are better medicine than mainstream medicine. [hypothesis]

This is a popular left-wing distorted mirror universe. Ancient humans DID NOT, by any measure, lead better lives than modern humans. Ancient medicine was a crapshoot, because nobody understood the cause of disease until the 1800s. Those plants that were consistently found to be useful, far beyond placebo, then became “mainstream medicine” – that is, medicine that works. Everything else is just plants that we eat, digest, and poop. However, people spend billions of dollars every year on “alternative” medicine – expensive plants that have no actual proven medical benefits outside of quack claims by people like Dr. Oz.  Basically, billions of dollars are spent making expensive poop.

The forces of anti-science are not about making progress, or being useful (in the sense of advancing the species through a growing body of reusable and timeless knowledge), but about preserving a world view that is comfortable to many people. But, that world view may be based on at least distortions, if not outright misunderstandings, of things like physics, chemistry, and biology (not to mention math and statistics). The reason it persists is not because it works, but because it feels good.

Examples of Distorted Mirror Universes

Here are some examples of mirror universes that you can go experience, if you so choose.

  1. Creationists offer their own tours of the Grand Canyon. They are prohibited from directly using the language of religion to explain the creation of the canyon, so they instead use fancy words that sound like science but actually are references to the creation of the canyon by the Noah Flood. It’s very hard to know that they are not talking about real geology, but their own geology they have created to fit the events in the Bible. More information is in Ref. 2.
  2. Basically any book by David Barton. Barton distorts historical documents, or invents fake historical events and documents, to conform to his dogma that the U.S. is a fundamentally Christian nation. He’s continually debunked by actual historians, but that’s not the point. The point is that those who devoutly listen to his “Wallbuilders” radio program are doing it so that they can live in the comfortable parallel universe where the U.S. is a Christian nation that can ignore the beliefs of all other people and can even expel people for holding the wrong beliefs.
  3. An event hosted by the Discovery Institute. They have flashy movies, handsome spokesmen who smile, and they use sciency words. They present biology as a debate between to equally correct but opposing groups of people, those who adhere to the “dogma” of the Law of Natural Selection and those who adhere to Abrahamic religious principles. They won’t mention outright that their arguments are based on religion, but they invent a controversy where none actually exists in science and then push that controversy on public and private schools.

What to do?

This is a hard question. Once you realize that there are parallel universes where objective reality holds no sway, you must abandon the tactic of only ever arguing as if you all live in the same objective reality. That won’t work for all people.

What might work? Our goal can only ever be to welcome people back to reality. Here is some advice:

  1. Never talk down to people.  Let them explain why they think their universe is the correct one. Let them know that you value their beliefs and that you want to understand their beliefs.
  2. Don’t let the conversation become one-sided. A conversation is, by definition, two-way. Don’t let them dominate by only ever talking about their views, and you should avoid the same. If it’s not a conversation – if, instead, it’s a conversion – then both people will walk away feeling more mistrustful of each other.
  3. Your best selling point on objective reality is to sell the benefits of living there. You have many. Medicine, technology, safety, health, longevity, freedom . . . the list goes on. There is bound to be something that appeals to them.

We all begin in objective reality. Our many experiences transport us from that reality to others, where we may remain for a time or forever. There is nothing wrong with some of those universes; in fact, living in some of them for a time may give us a deeper and more useful and practical insight into the natural world. But there are those parallel worlds, the distorted mirror universes, where thire established belief systems can cause real damage in the natural world. There are distorted mirror universes whose inhabitants seeks to overturn real science and real learning and replace them with something darker and less useful (or entirely useless). They do it in the name of saving values or culture; their end will be to destroy progress (as I defined it above), to bar the doors of the library of human knowledge and direct people elsewhere.

The only way to serve objective reality is to welcome more people back into it. You will never shatter the distorted mirror universes – their laws are impervious to evidence – but you can increase your population in the real world and hope for the best.

 

[1] Photo by vpickering. http://www.flickr.com/photos/vpickering/6110142493/

[2] http://www.earthmagazine.org/article/creationism-creeps-mainstream-geology