The Power of Peer Review

Peer review is the basis of good science publication standards. Papers are sent to journals and the journal collects a group of experts in the field so that the material can be reviewed. A positive review of the work lends itself toward obtaining publication; a negative review, depeding on the severity, can mean the paper is sent back to the authors for reconsideration or that it is not considered at all for publication.

Teaching this good practice of science is important, and what better time to start than when they people are young. Educating young scientists on the power of peer review can be a harsh lesson, “as illustrated by this article in a reputable newspaper”:http://www.theonion.com/news/index.php?issue=4116&n=3.

Sometimes the truth about your hypothesis can hurt. I wonder if the pushers of “intelligent design” can learn a thing or two from these brave kids. At least these young scientists tried to get their work reviewed for publication. Time to pony up actual predictions, ID’ers.

Reflecting on the lessons of Galileo

The catholic church has “just selected its new Pope”:http://news.yahoo.com/news?tmpl=story&e=1&u=/ap/20050420/ap_on_re_eu/pope&sid=84439559. Pope Benedict XVI, formerly Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, will soon begin his reign as Pope of the Catholic Church. In that role, he will affect the lives of a billion people on this planet. While not all catholics share the same views as Pope Benedict, or each other, the words and actions of such a man have an effect on a great number of lives.

The church has had a long and well-documented effect on many societies. Many of those effects were positive, but some of the more memorable ones were not. The many inquisitions held by the church to root out blasphemy are legendary. For me, the effect of the church on the life of Galileo is a song from the past with themes in the present.

Galileo walked a fascinating line throughout his life. His exploration of the natural world confronted many of the beliefs held strongly by the church, and catholics, in his day. However, despite the fact that he watched reason trump interpretations of the Bible he never let go of his core belief that ultimately his work revealed the world intended by God. Galileo was a philosopher, scientist, and devout Christian. He managed to balance these things in his life, despite persecution by the Catholic church. In particular, despite failing health and house arrest by command of the Inquisition, he carried out some of his greatest work in the twilight of his life and never lost his faith in God.

Galileo was charged by the Inquisition with heresy and repented in 1633. However, while many other scientists persecuted by the Catholic church were later pardoned, it wasn’t until the reign of John Paul II, 350 years later, that the church finally resolved their matters with Galileo.

The original conflict with Galileo stemmed from his discoveries of the moons of Jupiter, the sunspots on the surface of our sun, and his treatise, the *Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems*. His work challenged the belief that God put the Earth at the center of the universe. The sight of small orbs moving around Jupiter, and not the Earth, lent weight to the Copernican system that displaced the Earth from the center of the universe. It was also a belief that the sun was made perfect by God for Man; the blemishes, sunspots, suggested that wasn’t the case. Galileo collected these, and other observations, in his treatise and presented the results in the form of an argument between three men. One represented the views of the Church and was controversially named *Simplicio*, while another represented Galileo’s view and used the evidence he had amassed to back the arguments.

But the church condemned his work because it promoted what it considered the “dangerous” Copernican ideas, and Galileo repented after interrogation. He was placed under house arrest until he died, and all because he challenged interpretations of the Bible with empirical evidence. Let us not forget that his evidence was upheld by many other observations, and the view that the Earth is the center of the universe has long been retired. It doesn’t explain planetary orbits, even if passages in the Bible hint that it was true.

I would call on this new Pope, whose name is derived from the Latin for *speak well* (*bene dicto*), to live up to the name he has chosen. Speak well of your fellow man, and speak well of world in which we delight. Speak well of Man’s insatiable curiosity to understand this world. Recall from your own Church’s history that it is unwise to force the interpretations of peripheral passages from the Bible, and persecute those who present evidence that contradicts those interpretations. Let the lesson, taught to the church, by Galileo, live strong. There is a great movement in the U.S. right now to usurp the methods and conclusions of science with the vagaries of creationism. I would call on the Pope to watch this action closely, and not remain silent. We can take the story of Genesis literally, and deny the evidence in the natural world. Or, we can learn to re-interpret the Bible, as we often do with the sayings of kings and prophets and even Jesus, in the context of our modern understanding.

Let’s not let another 350 years pass before we scientists and members of the church can start to see each other eye-to-eye. Let’s have learned from the experience with Galileo, both you and me, and pick the dialog up from there.

Before the Internet, there was the BBS

Just before heading to bed tonight, I was goofing about on Google (doing that hubris-filled “search for your own name” thing) and found a link that brought me back to my youth. My dad used to run a bulletin board system (BBS) from our home. In their golden era, the BBSes of the world were the telephone equivalent of the internet chat room, blog, game site, and software repository. I found the site listed in a “catalog of BBSes in the (203) area code, in Connecticut”:http://bbslist.textfiles.com/203/oldschool.html.

I remember that BBS well. “The Hub”, as dad called it, always ran off his desktop machine. In its heyday, he had two big multi-CD drives attached to it that he got at computer shows in Meriden. I’ve got those drives in a trunk in this office, and they still work great. Those CDs served all kinds of free software that he also got for cheap on CDs at the shows.

It’s nice to think back to those simple, serial days of the BBS. It’s also nice to think that getting information to and from the world is a lot faster than it used to be. Thank-you broadband!

Springtime for Physics

It’s gearing up to be a rich spring, and a richer summer. Winter and Summer are the times of year most densely populated by high-energy physics conferences. The biggies for my field are the winter-time Moriond QCD (Quantum Chromodynamics) and EW (ElectroWeak) conferences, followed usually in the late spring/early summer by the APS conference, followed in summer by Lepton-Photon, ICHEP (Intl’ Conf. on High-Energy Physics), and/or EPS. You can find all of these things listed well in advance on “hep.net”:http://www.hep.net.

Anyway, riches. I was talking about riches. I’m filling up my plate with a variety of activities for the spring. In an attempt to avoid the nice weather out here in California, I’m throwing myself into my bottomonium studies. My collaboration with Rob McElrath at UC Davis is going to start bearing fruit for both of us over the next few months, as he publishes phenomenology papers on the topic and I expand the search at the B-factory for the processes he and I have discussed.

I’m also heading to Vanderbilt University in late May for the “Frontiers in Contemporary Physics” (2005) conferences, a very well-regarded gathering to discuss the borderlands of physics. I’ll be presenting on behalf of the BaBar collaboration a few topical highlights. That’s gonna be great! This is my first conference in a while now, and it was a privelege to be asked by my collaboration to be one of the BaBar representatives at this meeting.

I’m also working on a variety of other projects. I’ve got my part-time involvement in the Braidwood neutrino experiment proposal. I’ve also got my BaBar event display work, which is getting some new polish now that we’re taking data again. Finally, I’m collaborating with some of my BaBar colleagues to assemble the pieces needed to discuss single-photon trigger physics and mechanics for the experiment. This is a critical ingredient in future studies of bottomonium, as well as exotic new physics searches, which I’d like to see born out by BaBar.

So the plate is full! Winter’s lull brings a new harvest in physics, and I can’t wait to reap!