Climategate is a tempest in a teapot, but it may lead to worst tempests

Posted on December 6th, 2009 — permalink

The Tennessean has been publishing numerous letters to the editor and editorial columns talking about how “climategate” supposedly shows that anthropogenic global warming is a fraud. It’s extremely frustrating. That conclusion can only be drawn from a deep misunderstanding about how science works and the language of scientists used in the e-mails, but sadly it seems that newspapers are interested more in presenting “both sides” than getting to the truth of it. Today, there is an egregious column from David Lipscomb professor Richard Grant repeats the same tired arguments global warming denialists have already been using, and completely misunderstands the impacts of the supposed revelations from the leaked University of East Anglia emails.

It’s very frustrating myself to watch this happen. The people who are trumpeting about this are ignorant about science. When I read the excerpts from the emails that are supposedly the smoking gun about climate change being a fraud, I do not see anything extremely alarming. What’s more, even if I did, the evidence for climate change has not come completely from the University of East Anglia; it has come from all over the place. If it hadn’t, scientists would not be accepting it as strongly as they do! And, yet, the newspaper coverage of this is covering the scandal, the controversy… it does not seek to illuminate the truth of the situation, to explain what is really going on. And, this of course lends fuel to the politicians who are exploiting global warming denialism for their own ends. (To be fair, there are also politicians who exploit the fact of human-caused global warming for their own ends! That doesn’t make the conclusions wrong, however.) It is sad to me to see so many in our population being manipulated in a way that will allow us as a society to act in ways that may very likely cause us tremendous pain in future decades.

Here is the text of a letter to the editor I wrote to the Tennessean in response. I don’t know if it will get published; I hope it does, of course, because many more people read the Tennessean letters to the editor than this blog.

The numerous letters and columns that have been written suggesting that “climategate” undermines conclusions about anthropogenic global warming are all getting it very wrong. There are two important points.

First, no matter what the researchers said when venting frustrations in private e-mail, their final actions in what data was published showed no misconduct. Nothing was suppressed, nothing was fudged. The impact of the supposedly revealing emails is vastly overstated by those who deny man-made global warming.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, even if we throw out all of the climate data and conclusions from the researchers in question, the conclusions still stand. This is an important point about how science works. Cold Fusion generated a lot of headlines in the 1980’s when first reported, but ultimately didn’t stand because no independent scientists could reproduce the results. With climate change, there are multiple independent teams who have data that all point to the same conclusions. Even if something were to cast doubt on conclusions of the University of East Anglia, that does not in any way affect the independent data of the USA’s NOAA, for example.

The climate change data is still robust. The leaked emails only show informal communication using the jargon scientists use, and normal human frustration with how obstinate so many seem to be against accepting the fact of man-made global warming. Given how science works, these emails do not in any way undermine those conclusions. It is only at our peril that we use these leaked emails to further political ends.


The Moon in “Heroes” is VERY different from our Moon.

Posted on October 25th, 2009 — permalink

My wife and I tend to watch TV shows a year after they come out; we rent the DVDs from Netflix and watch them then. We’re right now working our way through the third seasons of Heroes. If you’ve watched even the first season of Heroes, you know that Eclipses are a Big Deal and somehow cause or affect superpowers in humans. Well, there’s another total solar eclipse coming in Season 3. Here’s a screenshot (also showing a vapor ring left behind as Nathan Patrelli took off flying at high speed) of the moon about to eclipse the Sun:


OK, first, the good. Yes, the Moon is apparently about the same size as the Sun in the sky. (Yeah, the Sun looks a little bigger, but that’s probably because of the glare. There’s about to be a total eclipse, so they’ve got to have about the same apparent size. In any event, the size is close.)

Now, the bad. When the moon is that close to the Sun in the sky, it is a tiny, tiny, tiny, very thin crescent, basically a new moon. You will not see it at all, until it starts to actively block out the Sun. The reason for this is that since they’re so close to each other in a sky, it’s almost a straight line from the Earth to the Moon to the Sun. The distance to the Moon is much less, so the Moon is between us and the Sun. Thus, the side lit up by the Sun is the far side of the Moon from us.

Yet, here, instead of an almost-new moon, we see an almost-half-full moon! For half of the moon to be lit by the Sun when we see the two right next to each other in the sky, the moon would have to be at about the same distance from us as the Sun…. Well, it’s not quite half, so it’s a little closer, but we’re talking inside the orbit of Mercury here. And, for the Moon to look as big as as the Sun when it’s that far away, it will have to be physically almost as big as the Sun!

In our Universe, the Moon is a satellite of the Earth, about 1/4 the diameter of the Earth, and orbiting the Earth. The Sun is about 100 times the diameter of the Earth. The reason they look about the same size in the sky is because the Moon is so much closer.

From the evidence in the image above, however, the Earth of the Heroes Universe is very, very strange. They orbit a binary “star” system, including the Sun and the Moon… although the Moon is not a satellite of the Earth at all, but a binary partner to the Sun. However, the Heroes Universe Moon is an extremely bizarre object, for despite being so large, it does not shed any light of its own in the optical. It’s clearly not a large gas cloud, for you can see by looking at it that it’s a solid object with “seas” and craters and all of that. So, it’s something that has somehow managed to be as big as the Sun without triggering fusion inside to make it glow.


Well, given that all these superpowers work, we already knew they were operating under different laws of Physics, so I guess we shouldn’t be surprised.

My only fear is that people watching the show don’t realize that the producers are being very clever here in showing us that the Moon is a gigantic object that is nearly as far away as the Sun, very different from the case in our own world. I fear that some people watching might either think that the producers of the show have done the typical Hollywood thing and made a boner of a mistake, or may think that it’s entirely reasonable to see a near-half Moon right next to the Sun in the sky. I hope in upcoming episodes there will be dialog between the characters that more clearly reveals the nature of their Moon as a star-sized object close to the Sun.

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Physics GRE Considered Harmful

Posted on September 3rd, 2009 — permalink

“As presently constituted, it’s quite possible that the GRE physics subject test does more harm than good, and we should either fix it, or seriously consider getting rid of it altogether,”

A quote from Jennifer Siders in this article at, that really we ought to take seriously. I doubt we will, though, because the Physics GRE is well entrenched at most graduate programs across the country, and making changes like that is always tough. Indeed, the article I linked to (as a result of seeing it in Pamela Gay’s Facebook status) was written 13 years ago, and yet the Physics GRE is still going strong.

I’ve been grouchy about standardized tests for some time. When it comes to things like the general GREs and the SATs, I believe that it does correlate with overall academic performance. Whether or not it’s testing the right stuff, there seems to be some correlation between what it tests and what we’d really want to test. But, it’s not perfect. That is, for (say– I’m making this number up) 80% of students, the SAT and general GRE might a good indicator of how successful they’ll be in college. As such, from a mercenary college admissions’ point of view, it’s worth keeping using them. Most of the time, they get the right students, and damn but it’s really easy to cut down on the number of applications you actually have to put work into thinking about by sorting on a simple number. Of course, from an individual fairness and a humanity point of view, it’s pretty sad to think that the other 20% (or whatever) who would have thrived at a certain college aren’t even considered because of a bad test….

The Physics GRE, however, has bothered me since I started as an assistant professor. Now, mind you, this is not personal sour grapes. My Physics GRE score back in 1990 was 89th percentile. At the time, I felt a little bad about that; I was one of those geeks who always did well on standardized tests, and thought that I should get over 90% on anything math/science related. Much later, I realized that 89th percentile is damn good for the Physics GRE. I did not personally suffer as a result of the Physics GRE, so I’m not posting this out of bitterness.

But, there is evidence that the Physics GRE does not correlate very well with how you do in Physics grad school. It seems completely unsurprising. In grad school, you do well by doing well at research. Yeah, you have to pass your classes, but even there it’s very different from what the Physics GRE tests. The Physics GRE tests your ability to think uberfast (which may be relevant in conference arguments, but is not terribly relevant for most research), your ability to recall things you’ve memorized, and your ability to quickly go through canned problems about basic physics. It’s not completely irrelevant, but it’s not testing what is most important about graduate school.

Of course, all the hand-wavy justifications for why it’s the wrong test only mean so much. As I said, there is evidence that the Physics GRE does not correlate very well with how you do in Physics grad school. What’s more, there’s evidence that women who do just as well as men in grad school on average score lower on the Physics GRE. In other words, either because of societal conditioning or because of intrinsic differences, the Physics GRE is more unfair for women, on average, than it is for men. Given that we’ve got a recruiting and retention problem for women in Physics, we should take this very seriously.


Sedalia, MI makes Christians look bad

Posted on August 31st, 2009 — permalink

[T-Shirt Image]

You’ve probably seen this if you follow the science blogosphere at all. The Smith-Cotton High School in Sedalia, MI has done a forced recall on T-shirts made for their band. Why? Because the T-shirt riffed on the classic “primate turning into human” motif used as a symbol for evolution.

Parents got all upset about this— the shirt didn’t even promote evolution, it just referred to it. I can’t help but wonder if parents in similarly backward and ignorant communities might object to iconography of Greek mythology on shirts related to sports teams named appropriately? Or, are they smart enough there to recognize that just because somebody used a very recognizable image, it doesn’t mean that it’s true? Asserting that the Greek gods are real is, of course, anathema to a strict interpretation of Fundamentalist Christianity, just like evolution.

And, of course, there’s also the fact that evolution is real. That there was such an uproar that the school had to repossess the shirts really just makes Christians in America look backward, ignorant, and in denial of reality. It gives fuel to the fire of those who would argue that being religious is inconsistent with accepting modern science— for, assuredly, religion is the reason why many Americans refuse to accept modern science. Those who are small-minded and knee-jerk in their reactions to things that challenge their interpretation of their religion go nuts when a school “associates itself” with Evolution. And, in so doing, it makes it harder for those of us who are trying to remind the world that religion doesn’t necessarily lead to bad science. It’s just extreme wingnut religion that does.

The principal of the school repossessed the shirts claiming that the law required the school to remain neutral on the subject of religion. This is, of course, complete bullshit, because the shirt didn’t say anything about religion at all. There is a difference between saying anything about religion, and doing something that might offend some religious sensibilities. This argument he makes is essentially the “politically correct” argument. Yes, usually one associates “politically correct oversensitivity” with political forces on the left, but the truth is that this behavior can come from either side of the political spectrum; it’s just a matter of which sensibilities they are oversensitive to.

Rejection of Evolution is just as obsolete a religious concept as is the geocentric Solar System. That something like half of the USA doesn’t agree with this doesn’t make it any less true. If we’re going to object to iconography associated with Evolution, we really ought also to reject to any iconography that suggests the planets orbit the Sun.


The Silent Majority : It’s OK to be both scientific and religious

Posted on June 22nd, 2009 — permalink

Chris Mooney over at The Intersection has a post where he talks about The Silent Majority— the fact that there are a substantial number of people out there who have no trouble reconciling religion and science. The debate is dominated on one side by religious fundamentalists, who deny reality in their efforts to stay faithful to a literal (and, frankly, nonsensical) reading of the Bible. On the other side, that side which is loudest and most strident in the scientific blogosphere, are the militant atheists, the types who think that any form of religious faith whatosever is evidence of stupidity, ignorance, or childishness, and that any form of religious faith is incompatible with good scientific judgement.

However, the truth is, if you talk to the faculty of a science department at just about any college in the country, you’ll find that a substantial number of them (probably well less than half, but not a trivial amount) are regular churchgoers. I suspect you’d find that most are agnostic. You’d find that those who are atheists by and large don’t have a problem with their religious colleagues. There are people who have religious faith, but aren’t fundamentalists and thus that faith doesn’t have to interfere with their science. By the same token, they’re good and rigorous scientists, but they haven’t mistaken the metholdolgy and world-view of science for an all-encompasing perscription for how a rational person must order all of his thoughts.

There are a lot of people out there either with religious faith, or without faith but willing to admit the intellectual worthiness of those with faith, and who also have no problem with the fact of evolution, the overwhelming evidence for global warming, the face of the billions-of-years-old Unvierse, and all of the rest of the things that modern science has taught us. Chris Mooney is on the atheist side of this; I’m on the theist side of this.

Chris asks why the reasonable sorts who don’t feel the need to “hit the rails” and go to one extreme or the other of the debate, aren’t heard from more. Probably because of the Rush Limbaugh effect: those who have an extreme position that involves disdain for those who disagree are able to express it ever so much more entertainingly than those who see value in accomodation. Indeed, I made some posts about my own views on science and religion back when I was in, and when I did so I would receive many vicious attacks from the commenters there– those who are to the militant atheist bloggers as “dittoheads” are to Rush Limbaugh.

Whenever you are convinced that you are absolutely right about something– not pretty sure, not even very confident, but absolutely right– you should question yourself. If the vast majority of people who’ve thought deeply about it agree with you, there’s a very good chance that you really are right. For example, I am absolutely convinced that I am absolutely right in believing that evolution happened. The evidence is overwhelming, as the vast majority of people who have seriously looked at that evidence would agree. However, when it comes to the existence or non-existence of God, and to whether acceptance of science forces you to the latter conclusion, look around and acquire some humility– many people have thought a lot about this, and they aren’t all coming to agree that science must equal atheism. Perhaps it is compelling to you, and that’s fine… but if you think that therefore any thinking reasonable person would come to the same exact beliefs that you have come to, the weight of evidence indicates that you’re kidding yourself, just as assuredly as a fundamentalist theist of any stripe is kidding himself about the absolute and universal truth of his faith.


Grumbling about MidSouthCon’s “science” guest of “honor”

Posted on March 27th, 2009 — permalink

Last weekend I went to MidSouthCon, a medium-small science fiction convention in Memphis, TN.  (Well, Olive Branch, MS, but who’s counting).   It was jolly.  I ran a Fudge game, I hung out with friends new and old, I got a T-shirt that mixes the standard model of particle physics with Dr. Seussian poetry.  And, I was a guest myself; I gave a talk about Second Life, and did a live demo of Second Life.  I was also on a panel about “advising the movies”, even though I’ve never actually done that… I have given a talk about how Newton’s Laws hold up in science fiction movies and TV, though, which is probably why the event planners put me on that panel.

However, there was one thing that bothered me greatly.  See, they have a number of guests of honor.  Their writer guest of honor was Mike Resnick, and their artist guest of honor was Vincent de Fate, both of whom are truly excellent choices.  But, even though I’m no longer entirely a working scientist, I have to admit to feeling a little insulted that they chose a crackpot for the scientist guest of honor rather than me.  Not that I’m of the stature to deserve an “of honor” position, but at least I’m something of a scientist. I mean, come on people.  It’s fine to listen to the crackpots and have fun with them, but calling a UFO Guy the “science guest of honor?”

It’s great to have an open mind.  But there is a difference between having an open mind and an open braincase– that is, open in the way that an open circle is not a filled circle….

What’s sad is that a lot of the people who come to these conventions have a lot of interest in science, but don’t know a lot about it.  They may have more interest than many in the general public as a result of reading science fiction.  They may also have a tendency to want to believe some more fantastical things like UFOs.  But we can provide some really interesting real science talks that the public loves.  I’ve given science talks at Hypericon for the last four years, and they’ve generally been well received.  My talk about the modern picture of the expanding Universe was as mind-blowing as anything that the crackpots come up with, but is also supported by real actual evidence.  It’s sad when an opportunity like this is blown on foo-fa and ignorance.

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Astronomical References in Shakespeare

Posted on February 14th, 2009 — permalink

Thanks to Brian Cooksey for the shout out last time I was a contributor to the 365 Days of Astronomy Podcast. I’ve also done today’s podcast, all about astronomical references in Shakespeare’s tragedies… starting with Romeo & Juliet, what with it being Valentines day and all. Go and listen to the podcast!

For your viewing pleasure, I’ve also got a transcript of the podcast here:


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“Science at Play” — a play writing workshop in Second Life

Posted on January 19th, 2009 — permalink

Starting today at 2PM PST, I and others will be leading playwriting workshops at the Kira Cafe. The genesis of this idea came from Piet Hutt, one of the directors of the Kira Institute, after I gave an informal talk about what it was like to perform live theater in Second Life. As the mission of Kira is to talk about science in context, he thought it would be neat if we were to try putting on some plays related to science. One recent example is the play “Copenhagen” by Michael Frayn, although myself I am more familiar with “Hapgood” and “Arcadia” by Tom Stoppard.

The discussion evolved, and we decided that perhaps it would be interesting to think about getting people together to talk about writing plays, perhaps very short plays, that explore things related to science— and that are written from the beginning understanding both the advantages and the limitations that come from performing theater in Second Life (as opposed to live on stage).

If this sounds interesting to you, feel free to drop by the Kira Cafe today, and over the next few weeks on Mondays at 2PM SLT, to join us. The Kira Cafe can be found in Second Life at BaikUn (198, 76, 99).

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The Big Bang and Evolution : when does a theory evolve so much that it deserves a new name

Posted on November 21st, 2008 — permalink

I am currently visiting Colgate University, giving a physics colloquium about dark energy. I’m hosted by my friend Jeff Bary (who’s a first year professor there). Yesterday evening, his class gave presentations about discoveries that they’d researched. A few of the talks touched on the Big Bang. Afterwards, I was sitting around musing with Jeff and the departmental chair, Thomas Balonek. Thom was saying that it’s disingenuous for us to claim that we’re still talking about the Big Bang as it being the same theory that we had all those decades ago. What with the introduction of inflation, cold dark matter, dark energy, it’s changed so much that really it’s not entirely the same theory any more. I argued that the basic picture is the same– the Universe expanded from a very hot, very dense state to its current form– that it warrants having the same name.

I then asked the question: which theory has evolved more, the Big Bang or Biological Evolution? To point a finer point on it, let’s go back to the (say) 1950’s or early 1960’s, when people were arguing about Big Bang vs. Steady State cosmology, before the discovery of the Cosmic Microwave Background, well before the introduction of inflation to solve the flatness and horizon problems. Take what people were talking about then as the Big Bang, and compare to what we talk about today. Has that changed more or less than the Theory of Evolution has changed from what Darwin originally envisaged when he wrote the Origin of the Species?

To be sure, the theory of Evolution is better understood and understood in better detail than the Big Bang theory. They both share the feature that they are theories describing the evolution of a system, not it’s origin (although both the name of the cosmological theory, and the title of the work that started Evolution, both would seem to indicate that they do). We know a whole lot more about both today than we did then. Both have features today that people in the early days couldn’t have anticipated. (I understand the cosmology better, of course, but know, for instance, that DNA and the genetics gives us an actual mechanism for Darwin’s Evolution.)

So, what do you think? Which one has changed more? And is either theory similar enough to what was originally proposed that it deserves the same name, or should we have changed the name by now?


Is the Large Hadronic Collider going to end the world by making black holes or strangelets?

Posted on April 11th, 2008 — permalink