Sometimes, being a good teacher means drinking your own pee

20130501-154503.jpgI had the pleasure of guest lecturing a few weeks ago in the CFB/PHY 3333 course (despite being on teaching leave this semester – Profs. Scalise and Cotton are mighty persuasive). Here is the lecture audio, if you’re interested:

Lecture Audio – Homeopathy (Spring, 2013)

We’ve added a new feature to the part where we make our own homeopathic dilution – I drink my own pee . . . for SCIENCE! (and education)

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.


Better to say “I don’t know”

In his collection of essays, Profiles of the Future, Arthur C. Clark famously penned three “laws of prediction.” The third of these is the most widely quoted, and simply states that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” [1]

While in Fry’s tonight, Jodi and I happened by some floor models of those Dyson “Air Multipliers” – bladeless desktop fans that look like big wedding rings on tiny stands. They blow air just like a fan, but without the use of visible moving blades to push on the air and create the pressure difference. A father and young son happened by at around the same time. “Wow, dad, how does it work?” the son asked.

The father answered simply, “It’s magic.”

I can’t know the father’s state of mind. I can speculate wildly, though. Perhaps he was afraid of looking ignorant in front of his son. Who really knows? But his answer – “It’s magic” – was to me a tragic failure to teach. I don’t care that he didn’t know the answer, but as a teacher myself I do care that he didn’t know that it was okay to say, “I don’t know.”

“I don’t know” are three simple words that are a gateway to knowing. Admitting first that you do not understand is the step toward a shared opportunity to sit down with your child and learn. It has to be a deeply imprinted moment on the mind of a child when they can sit with their parent and together figure out how the Dyson Air Multiplier works. Taking computers apart with my own father was a key experience in my life, one which sticks with me to this day as a total lack of fear of  any technology.

I suppose it bothered me more that this particular parent reverted to “magic” to cover their ignorance. I get it. It seems fantastical, a fan without blades. But it also suggests a fear of that technology that renders the mind’s only explanation as something other-worldly or super-natural. Human-created things are not beyond nature, and we mustn’t be afraid to admit we don’t understand them as much as we mustn’t be afraid to tear them apart and find out how they tick.

Incidentally, the way the Air Multiplier works is that it draws in a bit of air through the base and pushes it up into the ring, where it flows along the inside of the ring and then out some small hole on the inner ring surface. The motion of the air is reminiscent of an airplane wing, except that half the air flow takes place inside the surface rather than entirely on the outside. The net effect of all of this motion in through the base and out through the ring is to create a continuous laminar flow of air through the ring.

I like the site referenced in [2] because they’re not afraid to conduct experiments on the device (e.g. block the intake vents and see what happens) or to dismantle it.

[1] “Profiles of the Future.” Arthur C. Clark. Revised, 1973.


Thinking about angular momentum

For many years, I have felt daunted by the quantum structure of nature. Don’t get me wrong – I studied it in lab class and I read a lot about it in my textbooks. It’s one thing to repeat an old experiment, or read a book; it’s quite another to be involved in a physical system where it’s do or die – get it, or don’t get it.

The bottomonium system seemed very mysterious at first. The upsilons, the etas, the h’s, the chis. So many Greek symbols, so many states, such a seeming mystery. I know I’m supposed to “just get” this stuff, and many of my colleagues do. But I also know who I am, and I am not afraid to accept that sometimes it takes a lot of time for a concept to puncture my cranium and sink comfortably into my brain.

Since I’ve been going around and giving all these seminars, I’ve had a lot of time to think about angular momentum. In nature, there are several kinds. The first is the most familiar, and it’s called “orbital” angular momentum. Find a friend, lock arms, and rotate yourselves around a common center until you puke. That’s orbital angular momentum – the rotating, I mean, not the puking. I guess the latter is linear momentum.

The other kind is internal angular momentum, commonly known as “spin”. It takes its name from the analogy that it’s a quantity that seems inherent to a particle, as if that particle were storing energy in its own rotation around an arbitrary axis. But the particle is not, in fact, spinning. That’s where the classical analogy breaks down. Do the calculation of how fast the electron, for instance, would need to be spinning and you quickly find that it violates a lot of what we know to be true about nature.

I’ve come to think of spin as a kind of vertigo. If grasping arms and physically rotating in space is orbital angular momentum, that sense of rotation you get in your head when no physical rotation is actually present – vertigo – is much like spin. It’s as real as actually spinning when you find you can’t walk straight as a result, and it plays a real role in defining how you interact with your environment.

Spin and orbital momentum, together, create a rich structure in even the simplest multi-particle quantum systems. It is the richness, evolving out of just a few particles, that defines the spectrum of states in a physical system. Let’s go back to bottomonium. Like the system from which bottomonium takes its name – positronium, an orbiting pair of an electron and a positron – this system has a ground state, and a multitude of states above that with unique combinations of orbital and spin angular momentum.

For example, positronium’s ground state is also called “para-positronium”, where the spins are oriented opposite one another in an antisymmetric configuration and the electron and positron have no orbital angular momentum. para-positronium is the state which, when formed, annihilates into a pair of gamma rays – this is the basis of a PET scan. If the spins align with one another, or are anti-parallel in a symmetric state, then we find ourselves in the ortho-positronium state. This lives much longer, because it has to annihilate into at least three gamma rays to conserve total momentum.

In the bottomonium system, the ground state is called the “eta” (instead of “para-bottomonium”, I guess) and borrows its nomenclature from its cousin quark, the charm quark, and her quantum state names. Because quarks are ruled mainly by the strong force, when the eta decays it does so into a pair of gluons instead of a pair of photons. The ortho-bottomonium state, called the “upsilon”, lives longer because it must decay into at least three gluons.

Nature is full of symmetry. The symmetry between positronium, its structure the result of the richness of electromagnetism, and bottomonium, its structure due to the strong force, strikingly unifies ones understanding of the two systems. There are key differences – coupling in electromagnetism is an order of magnitude weaker than coupling in the strong force – and this changes a lot of realities. But, fundamentally, if you can think about positronium, or the hydrogen atom, you are equipped to think about bottomonium.

The more I dig into the data of quantum mechanics, the less I think I do not understand it.