December 31, 2007

Topography of 2007: A Blag in Review

It's time for some self-aggrandizement!

2007 was a good year for the web-log. Other than the summer and mid-fall, I actually wrote a fair amount. Among this year's accomplishments, I gave the site an even more abstract name, showed the world I can create peculiar line drawings and managed to get linked to from Slate, Backreaction, Cosmic Variance, and so forth. Just for fun I went back and picked my favorite piece from each month.

January: The Job Market Just Got a Little Smaller. Friends of friends are constant sources of humor.
February: 371 Years of Treason. A brief summary of why I hate Connecticut.
March: Obligatory. I don't like Duxbury, MA much either.
April: #107 With A Bullet. A tale of senseless violence, against telescope mirrors.
May: More APOD Bashing. Although "Eponymity in Physics" is more upstanding and non-hateful, but for inexplicable hatred for the Astronomy Picture of the Day this post has no equal. Sooner or later, one of those guys is going to send a goon to my house.
June: Galileo's Luxurious House Arrest. Taking shots at Conservapedia is about as easy as it gets, but that doesn't make it any less fun.
July: Amusement Park Photos. July was a slow month.
August: Dr. Accidental Electrocution. So was August.
September: Where the Dumb People Live. Using census data to confirm my elitist views. I don't think we finished Reconstruction. Freaking Samuel Tilden.
October: YLEM. Enough said.
November: Some Bubble Updates. For some reason, I thought I wrote more in November...
December: This would have to be that 4 part Stupidity Supernova thing. Parts I, II, III, IV.

This seems like a good time to thank the people who read this. I am puzzled by but grateful for your existence. Please continue to judge my ramblings with the knowledge that I have willingly chosen a career path where an extensive knowledge of Star Trek is socially beneficial. So thanks again, and have a great New Year!

December 27, 2007

APOY 2007

And for your astronomically-themed seasonal viewing enjoyment, more pictures of things in space!

Bad Astronomy puts up their "runner up" of the best astro pictures of 2007, and it still beats the hell out of APOD's APOY. Changing the last initial of your name still won't make you cool, APOD. Of course, they just did that to make it stand for "year," but I still consider it suspect. For instance, they pick one shot which is just the International Space Station orbiting the Earth. Well, I for one, would prefer that NASA spend more of its budget on research grants, rather than on pointless manned missions that do nothing to increase our understanding of the universe, but hey, that's just me. Seeing something like that just reminds me of how the National Aeronautics and Space Administration has shifted its focus away from real science. Oh yeah, APOD is hosted on a NASA URL. How convenient. (Even during holiday season, no mercy for APOD!) And how they managed to ignore the Carina Nebula altogether astonishes me. Morons.

On the other hand, BA is dead on. They've got Cassini's Saturn pic, the shot of Earth that I believe ought to replace the worn out 'Blue Marble.' And I absolutely love this photo on BA's list, its flickr page gives the background:

I came upon this juxtaposition one early evening in early May, 2007. The crane was stationed on East 32nd St. in Manhattan. I took this shot looking east from 2nd Ave. This is not a Photoshop trick folks -- just a lucky shot.

Well, it was a lucky shot, of course -- but it also took some positioning and some daring on my part to stand in the middle of 2nd Ave. as cars barreled down on me. To get this shot I had to stand exactly at the right spot (and I do mean spot), steady my nerves (and hands) and take the shot before the cars could reached me. Those rush-hour NYC drivers DID NOT seem to be willing to slow down for me.

It's amazing how quickly the moon moves across the sky. Normally this is mostly imperceptible... until you try to align it with something (such as the crane) only to realize 20 seconds later, when you are ready to take your shot, that it has already moved. I took about 8 shots and had to reposition myself 3 times.

As of 5/30/07 the crane was still there. The moon, however, has since moved.

Top 22 Physics Stories

Physicsworld runs down the top 2007 stories in the world of physics by month.
1. January : Map sheds light on dark matter
2. February: International Linear Collider plans are unveiled
3. March: Graphene meets negative refraction
4. April: Rogue neutrino is ruled out
5. May: Physics loses a polymer pioneer
6. June: Large Hadron Collider misses 2007 start up
7. July: The ongoing saga of the supersolid
8. August: The latest schemes for stopping light
9. September: Quantum computers get on the buses
10. October: GMR pioneers scoop Nobel Prize
11. November: Cosmic-ray mystery solved at last
12. December: US and UK physicists face funding cuts

Then AIP culls it down to a top ten:
In chronological order during the year:
  1. Light, slowed in one Bose Einstein condensate (BEC), is passed on to another BEC (link);
  2. Electron tunneling in real time can be observed with the use of attosecond pulses (link);
  3. Laser cooling of coin-sized object, at least in one dimension (link);
  4. The best test ever of Newton’s second law, using a tabletop torsion pendulum (link);
  5. First Gravity Probe B first results, the measurement of the geodetic effect---the warping of spacetime in the vicinity of and caused by Earth-to a precision of 1%, with better precision yet to come (link).
  6. The MiniBooNE experiment at Fermilab solves a neutrino mystery, apparently dismissing the possibility of a fourth species of neutrino (link);
  7. The Tevatron, in its quest to observe the Higgs boson, updated the top quark mass and observed several new types of collision events, such as those in which only a single top quark is made, and those in which a W and Z boson or two Z bosons are made simultaneously (link);
  8. The shortest light pulse, a 130-attosecond burst of extreme ultraviolet light (link);
  9. Based on data recorded at the Auger Observatory, astronomers conclude that the highest energy cosmic rays come from active galactic nuclei (link);
  10. And the observation of Cooper pairs in insulators (link).

Then Topography of Ignorance just says that it's the neutrino thing.

December 26, 2007

Wonkette Can Suck It

Like many states, Rhode Island has a signature requirement to get on the primary ballot. Unlike many other states though, we moved up the filing date to the rather unusual December 26th, and only 3 candidates have pulled in the 1,000 needed to qualify, as of a few days ago. Obama, Guiliani, and the HRC all have at least a thousand, but Rudy only barely, and there is a good chance he'll need more, since a certain fraction of signatures are always phony. If that happens, and none of the other candidates rally, the only choice on the GOP ballot will end up being "uncommitted," which is just hilarious.

Unfortunately though, some loser website for losers was hating on the Ocean State for this state of affairs (Wonkette: Rhode Island Can Suck It). "Oh, whatever, who gives a shit about Rhode Island anyway? They probably have, like, negative electoral votes." Pretty much every state has a requirement like this, it isn't our fault if your shitty candidate can't muster a piddling 1000 signatures. Oh no, people won't be able to vote for Huckabee! This is supposed to be a bad thing? And saying we have "negative electoral votes," even lamer. If more states voted the way we do, the country would be in better shape--RI makes extremely prescient political decisions come election-time. For all their clout, Florida and Texas are not exactly a brain-trust. Providence Daily Dose puts it well,

So we require 1,000 signatures. That’s nothing new. Shouldn’t getting 1,000 Rhode Islanders to fucking sign of piece of paper be a doable task for a person who wants to be the elected leader of the country?...

The real entity that can suck it is whatever parallel universe coughed up the lousy d-bags who make up the bulk of our 20 candidates and who are apparently less inspiring then we might have given them credit for, and also the stupid system that makes us so neglectable. We’re a casualty of war. We’re a victim here. Suck it?

Besides, if the other candidates really need those signatures so badly, they can swing by the North Burial Ground just like everyone else.

h/t Prov Daily Dose

Update: "Republicans Mitt Romney, John McCain, Mike Huckabee and Ron Paul and Democrat Christopher Dodd have submitted enough validated signatures to appear on Rhode Island’s March 4 primary ballots, according to local boards of canvassers." Projo

December 24, 2007

Saturnalian Christmas

As we gather around the roaring yule-log, sipping our rum laced with egg-nog, we too often fail reflect on the true origins of our yearly holiday. And I certainly do not mean the Christy ones-- I'm talking about the kind of origin that involves drunk rioters and talking farm animals. In times like these, I turn to my 1898 edition of Curiosities of Popular Customs, and of Rites, Ceremonies, Observances, and Miscellaneous Antiquities by William S. Walsh for the proper perspective. I bought my copy from the Tabor Academy library for $1, the reference librarian having concluded that it was too racist and outdated for a modern high school. It is an invaluable source of naïvely Anglo-centric information about holidays no one celebrates anymore, or celebrates widely now but which were new then, or stories about where pieces of saint's bodies ended up. Or of the horrible blood-rites common in heathen lands.

As my X-Mas gift to you, people who read this, I will simply excerpt a large piece of the fascinating entry on Christmas. (It may be read starting on page 226). No where else can you see the history of Christmas explained using words like 'pagan,' 'Govr' and 'Popish'? Or outlandishly racist sentiment from the 1890's. Or phrases such as "...citizens saluted his charred and mangled corpse, when it was last borne to the grave." Enjoy!


Christmas. The reputed anniversary of the birth of Jesus Christ, December 25, and as such one of the greatest festivals of the Protestant, Catholic, and Greek Churches. It is essentially a day of thanksgiving and rejoicing,—a day of good cheer. Though Christians celebrate it as a Christian festival, though to them it is the anniversary of the most solemn event in all history, the meeting of heaven and earth in the birth of the God-Man, the festivities that mark the epoch are part of the universal history of the race. In pagan Rome and Greece, in the days of the Teutonic barbarians, in the remote times of ancient Egyptian civilization, in the infancy of the race East and West and North and South, the period of the winter solstice was ever a period of rejoicing and festivity. Even the Puritanism of the Anglo-Saxon has not been equal to the task of defending Yule-tide from a triumphant inroad of pagan rites and customs, so that the evangelical churchman who is shocked to see flowers decorating the sanctuaries at Easter would be sorry to miss the scarlet berries that hang there at Christmas, so that even austerest lovers of the plain-song tolerate and even weleome " quips and cranks and wreathed smiles" in their Christmas carols, so that joviality and merrymaking are the order of the day at Christmas banquets,—a joviality sanctified and made glorious by good will to all men. Yet the holly and the mistletoe are a survival of ancient Druidical worship, the Christmas carol is a new birth, purified and exalted, of the hymns of the Saturnalia, the Christmas banquet itself is a reminiscence of the feasts given in honor of ancient gods and goddesses, when, as Cato said of the analogous feasts in imperial Rome, commemorating the birth of Cybele, the prospect that drew one thither was "not so much the pleasure of eating and of drinking as that of finding one's self among his friends and of conversing with them." Nay, the very idea of the Child-God, which gives its meaning to the Feast of the Nativity, was prefigured and foretold not only in the vaticinations of sibyl, seer, and prophet, but in the infant gods of the Greek, the Egyptian, the Hindoo, and the Buddhist, which in different ways showed the rude efforts of the earlier races to grasp the idea of a perfect human child who is also God.

Great as the feast is, however, nobody knows anything definite about its origin, nobody knows who first celebrated it, or when or where or how. And nobody even knows if December 25 be indeed the right anniversary of Christ's nativity.

This anomaly arises from the habit of the early Christians to look upon the celebration of birthdays as heathenish. The birthday of the Lord himself was not excepted. But after the triumph of Christianity the old prejudice died out; and then the date of the Saviour's birth became a matter of ecclesiastical investigation. St. John Chrysostom, writing in 386, relates that St. Cyril at the request of Julius (Bishop or Pope of Rome from 337 to 352) made a strica inquiry as to the exact date. Cyril reported that the Western Churches had always held it to be December 25. It is true that other communities of Christians preferred other dates. In many Eastern Churches the 6th of January had been fixed on as the anniversary not only of the birth of Christ, but of his manifestation to the Gentiles. (See EPIPHANY.) April 20, May 20, March 29, and September 29 were respectively accepted by small minorities. In short, as St. Clement says, the matter was very uncertain.

Nevertheless it appears that Pope Julius was so far satisfied with the report of Cyril that somewhere about the middle of the fourth century he established the festival at Rome on December 25. Before the end of the century that date had been accepted by all the nations of Christendom. This acceptance was facilitated by the fact that it is the date of the winter solstice,—the turning-point of the year, when winter, having reached its apogee, must begin to decline again towards spring,—when for unnumbered ages before the Christian era pagan Europe through all its tribes and nations had been accustomed to celebrate its chief festival.

Now, it was always the aim of the early Church to reconcile heathen converts to the new faith by the adoption of all the more harmless features of their festivities and ceremoniala. With Christmas the Church had a hard task. Though it aimed only to retain the pagan forms, it found it could not restrain the pagan spirit, in spite of clerical protests and papal anathemas, in spite of the condemnation of the wise and the sane, Christmas in the early days frequently reproduced all the worst orgies, the debaucheries and indecencies, of the Bacchanalia and the Saturnalia. The clergy themselves were whirled into the vortex. A special celebration called the Feast of Fools was instituted,—as learned doctors explained,—with a view that " the folly which is natural to and born with us might exhale at least once a year." The intention was excellent. But in practice the liberty so accorded speedily degenerated into license. The Council of Auxerre was moved to inquire into the matter. A Flemish divine rose and declared that the festival was an excellent thing and quite as acceptable to God as that of the Immaculate Conception. There was great applause among his like-minded brethren. Then Gerson, the most noted theologian of the day, made a counter-sensation by retorting that "if all the devils in hell had put their heads together to devise a feast that should utterly scandalize Christianity, they could not have improved upon this one."

If even among the clergy heathen traditions so strenuously survived, what better could be expected from the laity? The wild revels, indeed, of the Christmas period in olden times almost stagger belief. Obscenity, drunkenness, blasphemy,—nothing came amiss. License was carried to the fullest extent of licentiousness.

Memorable as an illustration of the manners of the French court was a catastrophe that occurred in Paris in 1393. Riot and disorder had run wild all through the Christmas festivities. But the court was not yet satisfied. Then Sir Hugonin de Guisay, most reckless among all the reckless spirits of the period, suggested that as an excuse for prolonging the merriment a marriage should be arranged between two of the court attendants. This was eagerly agreed upon. Sir Hugonin assumed the leadership, a post for which he was well fitted. He was loved and admired by the disorderly as much as he was hated and feared by the orderly. Among other pleasant traits, he was fond of exercising his wit upon tradesmen and mechanics, whom he would accost in the street, prick with his spurs, and compel to creep on all fours and bark like curs before he released them. Such were the traits which endeared him to the courtiers of His Most Gracious Majesty and Christian King of France. The marriage passed off in a blaze of glory with an accompaniment of attendant Gargantuan pleasantry. At the height of the ceremonies Sir Hugonin quietly withdrew with the king and four other wild ones, scions of the noblest houses in France. With a pot of tar and a quantity of tow the six conspirators were speedily changed into very fair imitations of the dancing bears then very common in mountebanks' booths. A mask completed the transformation. Five were then bound together with a silken rope. The sixth, the king himself, led them into the hall. Their appearance created a general stir. "Who are they?" was the cry. Nobody knew. At this moment entered the wildest of all the wild Dukes of Orleans. "Who are they?" he echoed between hiccoughs. "Well, we'll soon find out." Seizing a brand from one of the torch-bearers ranged along the wall, he staggered forward. Some gentlemen essayed to stay him. But he was obstinate and quarrelsome. Main force could not be thought of against a prince of the blood. He was given his way. He thrust his torch under the chin of the nearest of the maskers. The tow caught fire. In a moment the whole group was in flames. The young Duchess of Berri seized the king and enveloped him in her ample robe. Thus he was saved. Another masker, the Lord of Nantouillet, noted for strength and agility, rent the silken rope with a wrench of his strong teeth, pitched himself like a flaming comet through the first window, and dived into a cistern in the court, whence he emerged black and smoking, but almost unhurt. As for the other four, they whirled hither and thither through the horrified mob, struggling with one another, fighting with the flames, cursing, shrieking with pain. Women fainted by scores. Men who had never faltered in a hundred fights sickened at the hideous spectacle. All Paris was roused by the uproar, and gathered, an excited mob, about the palace. At last the flames burnt out. The four maskers lay, a black and writhing heap, on the floor. One was a mere cinder. A second survived till daybreak. A third died at noon the next day. The fourth—no other than Sir Hugonin himself—survived for three days, while all Paris rejoiced over his agonies. "Bark, dog, bark!" was the cry with which the citizens sainted his charred and mangled corpse, when it was at last borne to the grave.

But why dwell on only one side of the picture? In the coarser days of our ancestors riot and revelry did indeed go hand in hand, but the revelry was ot a lusty, vigorous, and hearty sort unknown to these quieter times which have eliminated the riot. As we read of the great feats performed by these heroes of the trencher and the tankard, by these adepts in all out-door sports, the Gargantuan good nature of the season impresses us more than the cruelty, gluttony, and drunkenness which were apt to sully it. A race of jolly giants must needs give and take harder blows than their pygmy descendants.

Merrie old England was the soil in which Merrie Christmas took its firmest root. Even in Anglo-Saxon days we hear of Alfred holding high revelry in December, 878, so that he allowed the Danes to surprise him, cut his army to pieces, and send him a fugitive. The court revelries increased in splendor after the Conquest. Christmas, it must be remembered, was not then a single day of sport. It had its preliminary novena which began December 16, and it ended on January 6, or Twelfth-Night. All this period was devoted to holiday-making.

It was a democratic festival. All classes mixed in its merrymakings. Hospitality was universal. An English country gentleman of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries held open house. With daybreak on Christmas morning the tenants und neighbors thronged into the hall. The ale was broached. Blackjacks and Cheshire cheese, with toast and sugar and nutmeg, wont plentifully round. The Hackin, or great sausage, must be boiled at daybreak, and if it failed to be ready two young men took the cook by the arm and ran her around the market-place till she was ashamed of her laziness.

The women also had their privileges. In some places in Oxfordshire it was the right of every maid-servant to ask the man for ivy to dress the house withal, and if the man refused or forgot, the maid stole a pair of his breeches and nailed them to the gate in the yard or highway. In other places a refusal to comply with such a request debarred the man from the privilege of the mistletoe.

The gentlemen went to early service in the church and returned to breakfast on brawn and mustard and malmsey. Mustard is your great provoker of a noble thirst. Brawn was a dish of great antiquity, made from the flesh of large boars which lived in a half-wild state and when put to fatten were strapped and belted tight around the body, so as to make the flesh dense and brawny.

With the rise of Puritanism the very existence of Christmas was threatened. Even the harmless good cheer of that season was looked upon as pagan, or, what was worse, Popish. "Into what a stupendous height of more than pagan impiety," cried Prynne in his "Histrio-Mastix," "have we not now degenerated!" Prynnc's rhetoric, it will be seen, is not without an unconscious charm of humor. He complained that the England of his day could not celebrate Christmas or any other festival " without drinking, roaring, healthing, dicing, carding, dancing, masques and stage-plays . . . which Turkes and Infidels would abhor to practise."

Puritanism brought over with it in the Mayflower the anti-Christmas feeling to New England. So early as 1621 Governor Bradford was called upon to administer a rebuke to "certain lusty yon ge men" who had just come over in the little ship Fortune. "On ye day called Christmas day," says William Bradford. "ye Govr caled them out to, worke (as was used), but ye most of this new company excused themselves and said it went against their consciences to worke on ye day. So ye Govr tould them that if they made it mater of con science, he would spare them till they were better informed. So he led away ye rest, and left them ; but when they came home at noone from their worke, he found them in ye streete at play, openly : some pitehing ye barr, and some at stoole-ball and such like sports. So he went to them and tooke away their implements, and tould them that it was against his conscience that they should play and others worke. If they made ye keeping of it matter of devotion, let them kepe their houses, but ther should be no gameing or revelling in ye streets. Since which time nothing hath been atempted that way. at least openly."

In England the feeling culminated in 1643, when the Round-head Parliament abolished the observance of saints' days and "the three grand festivals" of Christmas, Easter, and Whitsuntide, "any law, statute, custom, constitution, or canon to the contrary in any wise notwithstanding." The king protested. But he was answered. In London, nevertheless, there was an alarming disposition to observe Christmas. The mob attacked those who by opening their shops flouted the holiday. In several counties the disorder was threatening. But Parliament adopted strong measures, and during the twelve years in which the great festivals were discountenanced there was no further tumult, and the observance of Christmas as a general holiday ceased.

The General Court of Massachusetts followed the example of the English Parliament in 1659 when it enacted that "anybody who is found observing, by abstinence from labor, feasting, or any other way, any such day as Christmas day, shall pay for
every such offence five shillings."

The restoration of English royalty brought about the restoration of the English Christmas. It was not till 1681, however, that Massachusetts repealed the ordinance of 1659. But the repeal was bitter to old Puritanism, which kept up an ever attenuating protest even down to the early part of the present century. (See THANKSGIVING. Also see BOAR'S HEAD; CAROLS; MISTLETOE ; MISRULE, LORD OF ; WAITS ; YULE-LOG, etc., forspecial Christmas festivities.)

There are many superstitions connected with the coming of Christmas itself. To the cock have from time immemorial been attributed unwonted energy and sagacity at that season. Even now in England it is common to hear one say, when the cock crows in the stillness of the November and December nights." The cock is crowing for Christmas." He is supposed to do this for the purpose of scaring off the evil spirits from the holy season. The bees are said to sing, the cattle to kneel, in honor of the manger, and the sheep to go in procession in commemoration of the visit of the angel to the shepherds.

Howison in his "Sketches of Upper Canada" relates that on one moonlit Christmas Eve he saw an Indian creeping cautiously through the woods. In response to an inquiry, he said, '-Me watch to sec deer kneel. Christmas night all deer kneel and look up to Great Spirit."

In the German Alps it is believed that the cattle have the gift of language on Christmas Eve. But it is a sin to attempt to play the eavesdropper upon them. An Alpine story is told of a farmer's servant who did not believe that the cattle could speak, and, to make sure, he hid in his master's stable on Christmas Eve and listened. When the clock struck twelve he was surprised at what he heard. " We shall have hard work to do this day week," said one horse. " Yes; the farmer's servant is heavy," answered the other horse. '' And the way to the churchyard is long and steep," said the first. The servant was buried that day week.

The salmon was a great Christmas favorite, and Sandys mentions a Monmouthshire tradition to the effect that on every Christmas Day, in the morning only, a large salmon appeared in the adjoining river, showed himself openly, and permitted himself to be taken and handled; but it would have been the greatest impiety to capture him.
In some places, as in Suabia, it is customary for maidens, inquisitive as to their prospective lovers, to draw a stick of wood out of a heap to see whether he will be long or short, crooked or straight. At other times they will pour melted lead into cold water, and from the figures formed will prognosticate the trade or profession of the future husband....In Poland, and elsewhere, it is believed that on Christmas night the heavens are opened and the scene of Jacob's ladder is re-enacted, but it is permitted only to the saints to see it. Throughout Northern Germany the tables are spread and lights left burning during the entire night, that the Virgin Mary and the angel who passes when everybody sleeps may find something to eat. In certain parts of Austria they put candles in the windows, that the Christ-Child may not stumble in passing through the village. There is also a wide-spread opinion that a pack of wolves, which were no other than wicked men transformed into wolves, committed great havoc upon Christmas night. Taking advantage of this superstition, it was not unusual for rogues disguised in wolf-skins to attack honest people, rifle their houses, sack their cellars, and drink or steal all their beer. As a specific charm, no doubt, against these wolfish depredations, it was customary in Austria, up to a recent date, after high mass on Christmas night, to sing in a particular tone, to the sound of the large bell, the chapter of the generation of Jesus Christ.
Scandinavia is especially the land of the Yule-log, of Christmas stories and legends of Thor and Odin. Then is the time for skating, sledging, dancing, and a general frolic. It is customary for every member of the family to take a bath on the afternoon preceding Christmas, and oftentimes it is the only thorough bath that is received during the year.
From the frozen North, of the midnight sun, to the evergreen South, of perpetual summer, is a long journey, but in all the distance there is found no land where the Christmas festival is not celebrated.

A Christmas celebration in Peru has peculiar features. In the cities, and more especially in Lima, there are bewildering scenes of activity on Christmas Eve. The streets and squares are crowded with a gayly dressed people. Droves of asses are to be seen in every direction, laden with fruits, boughs from the mountains, liquors, and other merchandise. Ice-stalls, provided with chairs and benches, are crowded by the perspiring pleasure-seekers, who find ice necessary on sultry Christmas.

As night approaches, the streets are packed with a noisy people, and joko and jest and merry pranks become the rule. These are participated in mostly by strangely attired persons in masks. Music of guitars, clattering castanets, and pebbles rattling in gourds fill the air with mingled discordant sounds. No door is closed. There are music and dancing and the distribution of gifts in every house. All are weleome to enter. Strangers are sure of a hearty weleome, and to be a foreigner is to have a double claim on hospitality and to receive a double weleome. All ceremony and restraint are absent.
The ante-bellum period in the Southern States was signalized by a special celebration at Christmas-tide, handed down from those English folk, gentle and simple, who first peopled Virginia and the Carolinas, and whose descendants have spread over the face of the country south of Mason and Dixon's line.

"There's no such thing as real Christmas now," sigh elder folk, white and black, whose memories run back to the gay, good days of slavery. Then, in truth, it was a two weeks' saturnalia. No master who respected himself, or hoped to keep the respect of his neighbors, dreamed of asking his black people to do more in the month of December than kill hogs and get up a big Christmas wood-pile...Often, too, the old negroes went visiting on their own account. No time like Christmas for a trip back to old Marster's or to see the sister or brother who had been given to some other branch of the family and so lived maybe twenty miles away. Duly mounted, tricked out in Sunday beat, with all sorts of queer bundles dangling here and there, and a carpet-bag fat to bursting swung at the horn of the saddle, Black Daddy and Black Mammy rode a-Christmasing, and at the journey's end were as weleome to whites as to blacks...

The pious among the slaves sang and prayed the night through. But their piety did not take the form of a prohibition sentiment. With a psalm yet hot in the mouth they were as ready as their fellows to troop up to the great house at daylight and drink their share of Christmas eggnog. Small blame to them, either, since the eggnog of those days was a mighty seductive thing to any who had a nice taste in drinks.


(By the way, it probably goes without saying, but I just wanted to point out that this last bit about slave times is extremely dubious, and I for one certainly do not agree with or trust the antiquated author here at all.)

Peace on Mars

It is probably too late for anyone to take advantage of this, but for anyone with belated card obligations, it might be worth it to check out Hubble's gallery of holiday cards formatted to be printed out for free, featuring astronomical images. Thanks government! Finally, something I can use...

Link - HubbleSite Holiday Cards

Squirrel Times

For your viewing enjoyment, animals doing things they should not, in the spirit of the season:

I am very suspicious of these 'trained' fish, but whatever.

December 23, 2007

Those Theiving Australians

My friend Chris is a filmmaker. And of course, being the style of the times, he puts many of his films on YouTube. And also being the style of the times, some Australian high-schoolers liked his parody of the French New Wave style so much that they made a homage to his work. Nonetheless, finding out that antipodeans decided to remake a film not well known outside of New Bedford (though deserving to be) came as a bit of a surprise. Such is the magic and splendor of the internet. I guess being a remake of a remake puts it in the same rare category as West Side Story and that recent sub-par Superman, but imitation is the sincerest flattery. And I certainly enjoyed watching their work-- it might be a while before we get to see another recreation of something set at UMASS Dartmouth.

Chris's Original:

Francois, Je T'Adore (2006)

And the knock-off:

Jumpcut, une tragédie (2007)

December 22, 2007

Happy Winter Everybody!

It was the winter solstice this morning at 6:08. I heard NPR erroneously report yesterday as the beginning of winter, so they're probably flooded in angry letters from astronomers and calendar freaks right now. All I know is that I can't take any more of these days where the sun sets at what I assume is roughly 1pm. Freaking daylight savings time.

December 21, 2007

But what does Plottl mean?

Somehow, this December Backreaction has managed to post on a staggering amount of SCIENCE with their "A Plottl A Day" advent calendar thing, wherein they choose a meaningful graph and then explain the importance of the result it depicts. They've been pretty intense so far. Since they just did some cosmology and some neutrinos, it was about time to shamelessly link to them.

That picture on the right is a plot of the measured neutrino mixing angle vs. the mass-squared from all the neutrino mixing experiments that measured neutrino mixing. It's excellent because it looks so fake.

December 17, 2007

Providence Now Stored in Google Streetview Mainframe

View Larger Map

Following what was surely massive popular demand, Providence, Rhode Island is now in Google Maps' Street view feature. Like any of the people in a city hit by one of these, I was determined to figure out when the Googlecar rolled through town. Somewhere on the internet this information is available, but it is more fun to try figuring it out. It has to be somewhere between July 29 and when I took my air conditioner out of the window...

Anyhow, I haven't yet found myself or anyone I know, but I'm working on it. It seems like it was taken over a day or two, one of time that was sunny and one that was overcast-- though it could be a single very long day. The sunnier parts seem to feature a lack of parked cars, which suggest it was a weekend day...unless it was late summer, when no one was doing anything. The banners for the Red Bull Soap Box Derby which took place October 13th are up, so it cannot have been much later than that. I don't think there is any non-obsessive way to figure out how long those things were up, but I don't remember them around when I moved in August 22nd. July 29th, when Blue State Coffee opened is the absolute earliest it could be, since there are obviously people going in.

And then I realized that you can read the bill on the Avon. Since the "Jane Austen Book Club" opened there on Friday, October 5th and ran there by itself for at least a week before being joined by another film that constrains it pretty well. Especially since the PPAC has a sign for the comedian Brian Regan who performed on the 7th (and even gives the then current time and temperature, 8:43 AM and 52 degrees). At that time there would be a lot more people on the downtown streets if it were a weekday, and the mayor's car would certainly be next to City Hall. So that narrows it down to the mornings of Oct 6th or 7th. Since there are weddings getting out at the Unitarian church and the synagogue next to Brown Stadium, that means it was Sunday for the East Side (since Jewish weddings cannot take place on Saturday during daylight).

Sunday October 7th, 2007! QED

View Larger Map

Update: Thanks to George in the comments for the tip about Jewish wedding rules, I originally had it on Saturday.

December 16, 2007

It Is Time To Laugh Again

This writer's strike is really getting to me. No Colbert Report, no new episodes of episodic programs, no opiate to distract me from my miserable depressing life.

Except that Futurama has returned! In the form of four straight-to-DVD movies. After 4 years of canceled dormancy, Comedy Central brought it back to life in this strange fashion. They are coming out over the course of an excruciating year, but having waited since 2003, you really can't complain. They will eventually be broadcasting the DVD films as episodes, and then hopefully more. I thought the first of them was really good, but I'm not exactly an impartial critic. They could probably draw stick figures in a flip books and as long as they called it Futurama I would give it five stars.

December 15, 2007

Conversational Physics

Way back in this web-log's salad days I wrote about a very cool art exhibit I saw involving upside-down trees. The artist's name must have lodged itself firmly in my brain because I immediately recognized it in this bizarre feature on Seed. They seem to have bought her and Lawrence Krauss dinner in some schmancy restaurant and obtrusively filmed their high-minded conversation. Very weird. It feels like watching an extremely awkward blind date between very intelligent people trying to sound intelligent. If I wanted to listen in on other people's dinner conversations I would get my early 90's Spy Gear down from the attic.

Seed Video Feature: Lawrence Krauss + Natalie Jeremijenko

December 14, 2007

Ignorance begets Violence

After a drunken argument over evolution, a creationist clodpoll stabbed a biomedical scientist to death. He was just given a 5-year sentence for manslaughter in Australia, where the crime took place.

Someone lost his life here, so it seems inappropriate to make a sweeping editorial statements. But I will anyway: all creationists are murderous villains. And if we don't oppose their movement with brutal force, they will kill again.

December 13, 2007


  • Bad Astronomy cooked up a wicked awesome top ten list of astro pictures from 2007. The image above is supercluster CL0024+1652, superimposed with the distribution of dark matter inferred through gravitational lensing.
  • An Austrailan ad company stole physicist Scott Aaronson's writing about quantum mechanics to make a conversation between models in their Ricoh commercial seem more realistic (of course!). When Australians plagiarize me, I think 'large cash settlement.' Dr. Aaronson thinks 'medium cash settlement donated to an Australia science education group.' Evidently, suing people in other countries is time-consuming. He is "gratified that this sordid southern-hemisphere tale of sex, plagiarism, quantum mechanics, and printers could be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction, without the need for a courtroom battle, and that schoolkids in Torres Strait Island might even learn some physics as a result." So Australia steals our intellectual property and is rewarded with several thousand dollars? Lame. Better education is only going make the next generation of Australians better at ripping us off.
  • Al Gore won some kind of prize recently. His acceptance speech is online here. Somehow, despite not being a cosmologist, he managed to invoke Frost's "Fire and Ice." I don't know how to deal with hearing that poem in a non cosmological situation, but considering that Earth has ice ages too, I guess it works.

    You know those stories based around alternate historical timelines? Like where the South wins the Civil War or the Nazis develop the atom bomb? Seeing Gore do non-presidential stuff always gives me the feeling I'm living in the "bad" timeline.


That steroid report came out today. I am not convinced that this is some major issue ruining the game forever-- after all, historically speaking unfair conditions were present during many other periods (think all-white teams...). But the players named are certainly deserving of some scorn. Jere points out that the turn-of-the-century Yankees were basically a total fraud.

So the 2000 champion Yanks were pretty much a cartel, with Roger the Traitor, Pettitte (what would Jesus do? Cheat, apparently), Stanton, Justice, Glenallen Hill, Denny Neagle, Jason Grimsley, of course, and, ha, Knoblauch in on the act. (Like with Gagne, though, the stuff didn't work for one Mike Lansing.) You tellin' me Derek Jeter didn't at least hear about this stuff going on?
How dare he accuse St. Jeter of a misdeed! Captain Intangible Super-Classy Jeter surely had no clue any of this was happening. After all, he had none of the investigative tools of a retired Senator seven years after the fact.

I've always been more pissed off by the thought that steroided players were affecting championships than that they were breaking records. I mean, a record is only as good as the reputation it bestows upon the holder, and if everyone already considers you a fraud, what is it worth anyway? On the other hand, even though Giambi's 2 home runs in game 7 of the 2003 ALCS proved to be the difference no one is giving us that game back. And even if a Series winning team is found to have had a bunch of steroid-users, it is tough to single out the responsibility. Yet what is more important, Bond's home run record that no one considers legitimate anyway? or a bunch of World Series outcomes altered unknowably?

Hopefully, those 2000 Yankees will go down in history like the Black Sox.

The Reason

It sure is.

These are t-shirts, apparently.

December 11, 2007

Is the Moon a Hoax? Teach the controversy!

I am sure that I'm the last person to notice this, but since it has only now come to my attention, in this solipsistic world of blogging, it is a good time to point it out.

Inspired by the nonsensical conspiracy theorizing of a holocaust denial group wishing to be seen as scholarly, 'The Mad Revisionist' has created a website full of "essays dedicated to the manufacturing of truth through the discarding of evidence." After all "why restrict this methodology [of revisionism] to the discipline of history when there are so many other areas of knowledge that cling to dogmas derived from the worn-out, ivory-tower standards of academic responsibility?"

Anyone familiar with the all-caps style of wild-eyed internet scholarship will be impressed with the work they have collected. "THE PARTHENON: A post-Hellenistic Fabrication," "The IRISH POTATO HOAX of the 1840's," "THE TITANIC: Hollywood Propaganda Fraud Exposed!." But in my humble view, the real gem of the series has to be "THE MOON: A Propaganda Hoax." If there was a crackpot index for, well, denying the existence of things that weigh 7.35 x 1022 kg and can be seen once a day by anyone on Earth, it could be calibrated with this piece. Well, except for the lack of multicolor font or inexplicable spelling/punctuation errors.

Led to moon-existence research by a statement by an historian that

for a group of historians to say that there had been a Holocaust was tantamount to "an organization of astronomers saying there is a moon."

While, on the surface, this appears as nothing more than a shameless attempt to trivialize and thereby discredit the work of revisionists, it nonetheless got me to thinking: why did this historian single out the moon? Why would a scholar, so familiar with academic standards of evidence, use such language to imply that the existence of the moon, unlike any other issue, was a given and not subject to proof? What, in other words, was he trying to hide?

Until recently, I, too, believed in the traditional, establishment view of the moon. But any thinking person, untainted by the biases imposed on us by the controlled media, will have no choice but to reach the conclusion I did once faced with the facts described in this account.

"Establishment view of the moon," "controlled media," outstanding. A Q & A section then addresses the objections raised by the Astronomically Correct community, such as "The tides of the oceans are created by the gravatational pull of the moon," "Hasn’t the moon been mentioned in texts and literature throughout history?" and of course "You can see it."

But think about it – without the help of so-called "experts", how do you really know what you’re looking at? It could be a hologram, projected from various government installations throughout the world. It could be a large, crudely painted balloon, held in place by helium and propelled by tiny sails and rudders (which is why it moves across the sky so slowly). Or, most likely, it could have been different things at different times and different places, depending on the technology available to the conspirators and the culture and beliefs of the population being deceived.

A quality section from an aerospace engineer uses the argument that the amount of "fuel" required to "keep" the moon in orbit would be much larger than the earth itself.

In order to keep [satellites] in a stable and useful orbit, I have to plan maneuvers, that have a cost in fuel. In fact, this fuel expenditure is what makes the Moon a totally impossibility!

For, in order to control them, I have to spend, each year, an ammount of fuel bigger than 0.1% of the satellite's mass [I could give the exact number, but it's a professional secret, and they would have to kill me].

So, let's apply this number to the alleged Moon. If it existed since the alleged value of 6,000 years ago, and if it has now the alleged mass of 1/81 times the mass of the Earth, then it would have to be *at least* 402 times *more* massive than it is today. This is *much* more than Earth's mass, a clear impossibility.

6000 years, more good work. I only feel bad that the author must have read a great deal of crank-y writing to learn to reproduce it so well. The interpretation of Newton's gravitational force law is very special as well, including, as it does, not only an ad hominem attack on Sir Isaac but also the repetition of a criticism raised in Newton's time about the instability of orbits (in the manner of creationists echoing once-legitimate but now answered questions about evolution), ignoring Laplace's landmark work demonstrating orbital stability.

However, even the most fanatical Lunarists no longer cling to the absurd notion that objects in the solar system travel in concentric circles. These so-called 'scientists' have changed their story so many times, who knows what to believe anymore?...Our orbiting satellite is forever oscillating towards us, drawing near then distant, in a continuous cycle...

In other words, the moon does indeed alter its distance from the earth. So why is it not widespread knowledge that the end – mathematically predicated BY NEWTON’S OWN FORMULA - has been anticipated and is drawing near? Due to some irrational explanation the moon has managed to defy those very laws of physics that were originally developed to justify its existence.

And if you are still unconvinced,
Okay, but I still find this all hard to believe. What evidence do you have that there is no moon?
You should be asking what evidence we have that there IS one...

And, of course, no exposition of this type would be complete without the unclaimed $100,000 reward for emailable proof of the moon's physical existence.


December 10, 2007

Heretofore Unbenounced Particles

The Daily Show recently put everything from the last 9 years online. The interface is sort of clunky, but that doesn't stop it from being an amazingly entertaining time sink. For today's entertainment, a flashback to June 28, 2000, when men were men, women were women, and George W. Bush was still a stupid-funny punchline instead of a sad-funny one. What's that? It's Steve Carell visiting Brookhaven! Pretty standard scientists-are-going-to-destroy-the-Earth stuff, though I suppose it comes across that Carell is mocking that kind of hyperbole by getting people on the street to worry about being sucked into a black hole. It is worth watching if only to hear Michael Scott pronounce the phrase "Quark-Gluon Plasma." And for this exchange, which is sort of reminiscent of most science-related articles you see in the newspaper:

Steve Carell: But just what do [you] hope to learn?
Ken Batchelor: We might understand how creation occurred.
Steve Carell: But apart from that, what else?

December 9, 2007

A Festivus for the rest of us!

Get the aluminum pole out of the crawl space -- it's Festivus season!

As anyone who owned a television at some point in the past decade knows, or should know, Festivus is a winter holiday created by George Costanza's visionary father, in an episode of Seinfeld 10 years ago. Invented as an alternative to the commercialism, unrealistic expectations, and family unity of the traditional holidays, Festivus forsakes gift-giving and celebration for the more satisfying practices of airing grievances and wrestling family members. And as a pretender to the biggest holiday of the year, Festivus is really the king of indie holidays. And to the delight of those people who write the "offbeat news" columns in newspapers, Festivus is actually being celebrated by the portion of our society most interested in living like a parody of themselves. As this video compilation explains, Festivus consists of setting up an aluminum pole (for its high strength-to-weight ratio) on Dec 23rd, and gathering your friends and family around to explain to each of them how they have disappointed you over the past year. Having completed this affectionate task, the evening proceeds on to the Feats of Strength, which may take many forms and is not formalized beyond the precept that the celebration may only conclude when the head of household is pinned to the ground. Although gift giving is not required, the universal Festivus gift creed, for those who decide to anyway is to:

Give only something you don't want that you expect the recipient doesn't want either.
according to this tutorial video on the official Festivus pole dealer's website. That's right, the demand for Festivus poles has reached the point where they are really being produced and sold. (Who knew so many found tinsel distracting?) Anyway, I assume that people who actually celebrate the holiday find ways around insulting their friends and wrestling their parents but who knows.

I've never actually celebrated Festivus, but I wouldn't mind finding people who did, so that I could determine what nutritional value they might contain.

December 8, 2007


Another purge from my overfilled drafts folder-- this kickass compilation of the last 2000 years of eclipses. The white streaks represent the paths of total eclipses, and the lighter the area the more frequently it has been eclipsed. As noted by EPOD, the Northern Hemisphere is lighter than the southern because during the summer months the Sun is slightly farther from the Earth, and thus more likely to be eclipsed by the moon, whose size in the sky does not change*. Also, when it is the summer the days are longer so there are more sunlight hours to take advantage of. Over time, these things compound each other to produce quite a dramatic difference between the two hemispheres.

EPOD stands for Earth (Science) Picture of the Day. As a competitor of the super-lame APOD I heartily approve. And yet, it is unfortunate that there aren't more things worth taking pictures of on Earth.

*As far as we know. Teach the controversy people!

Mystery force

Hubble has a nice new site about dark energy. In addition to a flash-type thing complete with creepy music, they have some other more in depth pages afterwards. This introduction they used is so vague and eerie (and misleading).

Scientists have found an unexplained force that is changing our universe,
forcing galaxies farther and farther apart,
stretching the very fabric of space faster and faster.
If unchecked, this mystery force could be the death of the universe,
tearing even its atoms apart.

We call this force dark energy.


December 7, 2007

I can has LOLScience

We all know LOLCats by now: Picture of a cat. Cryptically misspelled cat remarks. Blam-o, comedy gold.

In accordance with the immutable laws of the internet, this trend has evolved into all the other areas that nerds think about. One of which is Science. Or LOLScience, as it will henceforth be known.

hat tip BA

December 5, 2007

Hey look, a cell!

This is what they look like. If you happen to look in false color.

For some reason Wired's science blog doesn't have an actual link to wherever this comes from internet-wise. Real world-wise it was created by the European Molecular Biology Laboratory, and is to be published in Nature. In this photo is a skin cell, flash-frozen to preserve its normal appearance and electron microscoped from multiple angles to create a 3D image. The color legend goes:

Cell-cell contact: brown, nucleus: blue, microtubules: green , mitochondria: purple, endoplasmic reiculum: steel blue.
So it seems that they weren't just making it up in high school biology.

December 4, 2007


Last month I wrote about those artists who lived in the Providence Place Mall and Monday night I had a chance to hear Michael Townsend speak at Brown. He was the one who masterminded the whole thing, the "ringleader" if you will. And now he's on the lecture circuit. He and his wife gave a meandering talk on many aspects of the "project" as they described it. I had been expecting a tour de force of art school intellectualism, but I came away with the impression that they had set up their apartment in more of a "wouldn't it be cool if we did this" attitude.

They didn't have a preplanned outline for the talk, they just brought a laptop and showed pictures, while running through a half-dozen subjects. One of the amusing things was the paranoia they felt living there. They didn't have any misapprehensions about whether what they were doing was trespassing and went so far as to wall up an open area below the 'apartment' with mall-style cinder blocks and a cheap, lockable door. He supposedly felt bad enough about stealing electricity that he'd slip a $20 under the managers door every few months (veracity dubious).

I'd been expecting to count words like "consumerism" but instead, all of the observations made were of the variety you would expect from an alien dropped into Providence with no pre-existing knowledge of American culture and the sole mission to understand every aspect of the mall. He and his wife were strangely perplexed by the ubiquity of advertising, and the way it tries to make people feel defined by possessions. This is a new thing? On the other hand, he did seem to have a lifelong obsession with the difference between public and private areas, so it wasn't as though he was making it up when it became convenient. In the 90's he found some neglected tunnel in downtown Providence, put a lock on the gate, cleaned it up and stuck a bunch of art in it. So that was weird. The mall is private property, yet it was subsidized massively by our tax money, something people forget.

Probably the most interesting revelation he made was that he never thought of living in "the netherlands" of the mall, as he called it, as performance art until they were caught living there with a couch, dining table, TV, playstation, lamps, and china hutch. So that was honest...especially because they seemed to be trying to pass it off as artistic expression right after they got busted.

The ProJo was there as well and wrote it up, newspaper-style.

December 3, 2007

Backreaction to the Future

I just realized that I've had this post in my 'drafts' folder for two months or so. But it isn't especially timely anyway, so here it is.

Check out this (sample from) Mark J.'s excellent list of movie titles, altered to be more physicsy.

The Bourne Approximation
Anyon Hall
Rebel without Causality
The Ampere Strikes Back
Thermal Reservoir Dogs
The Silence of the Lamb Shift
Weekend at Bernoulli's
It's a Wonderful Half-life
Dial M-theory for Murder
The Graduate (Student)
The Minkowski Candidate
Colloquium for a Dream
Riemann Holiday
Deriving Mrs. Daisy
De Sitter House Rules
Quantum Field of Dreams
The Rocky Kolb Picture Show
Least Action Hero
Broken Back Symmetry
A Manifold for All Seasons
Singularity in the Rain
Heat Death of a Salesman
Carnot Knowledge
American Pi
Bride of Einstein
Groundstate Day
Kolb and Turner and Hooch
The French Metric Connection
UV for Ultravendetta
Backreaction to the Future
Bohr on the Fourth of July
Apocalypse Yau
A Brief History of the World, Part I
Blazing Saddle Points
Total Derivative Recall
Black Hawking Down
Top Quark Gun
Dragnet Coefficient
The Natural (Units)
Dielectric Another Day
The Fantastic Fourier
Majorana League
Phantom of the Operator
Fixed Pointe Blank
L.A. Conformal
And contributed by yours truly,
Manhattan (Project)
Lost in Coordinate Translation
Full list here.

Hat tip Emergence. Oh, and Cosmic Variance even gets in on it (see the update)!

Stupidity Supernova, Part IV

I am so sad that I had to split this into 4 parts. In conclusion, a more gentle tale.

The last two of these stories (Astronomers destroy universe, Surfer wins physics) were brought up in a recent conversation with a college friend of mine who majored in physics but works on Wall Street. I said some of the same stuff that I just wrote, and expressed a bit of disappointment that these were the things making it into mainstream coverage. He mentioned that he actually only heard about them because they showed up on the Drudge Report. Ah, that reputable Drudge Report, second only to the Proceedings of the Royal Society for rumor and innuendo about Democrats eating babies molecular ecology.

So both stories reached my friend through the trajectory:
arxiv → Telegraph/New ScientistDrudge Report. If that doesn't set off alarm bells...

After he had asked my opinion on a really amazing paper by someone who attributes global warming to cosmic rays I advised him to go elsewhere if he wanted to read about sciency stuff which is actually based in reality. But that Drudge is a cruel mistress, and wouldn't take no for an answer. And I shouldn't be surprised by this, but within the span of a week two piece of shit news articles managed to take the same path to that impressionable right-wing youngster. Raising the question of who is scanning the preprint server for papers to misrepresent? Is this a full-time job they give interns who come to work at New Scientist? And it appears that not only were both of these Telegraph articles written by the same guy, but he even wrote one about wireless electricity that I complained about last June. Roger Highfield, you're on the list.

Oh, and in case you were wondering, the post title obviously refers to Type Ia Supernovae, since it is the accretion of this terrible reportage that has caused me to ignite in rage.

Part I - Gregg Easterbrook: The Second 'g' is for 'gigantic moron'
Part II - Astronomers: Universe Killers
Part III - Surfer Physics
Part IV - Inane Physics Story Trajectories

Stupidity Supernova, Part III

The past week or so has had one of the densest concentrations of dumb physics stories that I can remember. Sadly, this post got so big that I had split it up.

Surfer Guy
Garrett Lisi, a perfectly legitimate physicist without a research affiliation (but who is working under a grant from the FQXi) just produced some type of unified theory. I won't even pretend to know about this stuff, but based on the impressions I have seen, it seems promising, if not fully developed. Backreaction recaps it well. Nonetheless, someone got a hold of it, probably after glimpsing his glib title, (An Exceptionally Simple Theory of Everything), and spun it into a profile as intricately woven with exaggeration as E8 Lie algebras are woven with G2 and F4 subalgebras. (One would assume). Our old friends, the Telegraph and New Scientist got in the game with articles describing the shocking way in which this unlikely outsider has shook the very bedrock of physics with his mojito-fueled geometries. They buzz with the prospect that we might finally get another laid-back physics sage to inspire lazy youngsters, and consequently, drastically overstate the importance of this work.

I'm not very knowledgeable about grand unified theories, but one thing I do know is that there is no shortage of speculation. Evidently, this one looks fairly promising, but as with any, few of the testable predictions are completely worked out. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this type of work, and coming up with interesting models is what, in fact, often drives theory, since it forces others to examine how well we can fit consistent explanations to the real world. The problem with these news stories is that they present this work as though it dropped like a bomb in the physics world, when it dropped more like that video of OK Go dancing on treadmills. Everyone basically agrees that it is crafty and original, but won't really change anyone's daily life except maybe the people who choreograph treadmill dancing. And it will only catch on gradually, if/as people show it to be correct/hip.

I cannot emphasize enough that I'm not making fun of Lisi here. He is clearly pretty awesome. I wish that I was hardcore enough to write unification theories and impress FQXi (the x makes it seem cool). It is just a shame that writers feel any story along these lines has to have a huge personality component to be printable. It reminds me of Feynman with the bongo drums. He was always getting annoyed that journalists wanted to write about his hobbies -- saying that they needed a humanizing 'hook' for the biopic. Of course, as Feynman himself noted, science is the most human thing that humans do! Elephants can paint, but I've never seen one that could solve a differential equation.

Part I - Gregg Easterbrook: The Second 'g' is for 'gigantic moron'
Part II - Astronomers: Universe Killers
Part III - Surfer Physics
Part IV - Inane Physics Story Trajectories

December 2, 2007

Stupidity Supernova, Part II

The past week or so has had one of the densest concentrations of dumb physics stories that I can remember. Sadly, this post got so big that I had split it up.

Paul Davies
The excellent, The Physics of Time Asymmetry, is sitting over on my shelf. That is all I knew about Davies until I heard that he wrote an op-ed in the NY Times based on the idea that science necessitates the same level of faith as religious superstition. I was happier when all I knew about him was that book. CV and PZ Myers offer good responses. The less said about that op-ed the better.

We Shorten the Life of the Universe by Observing it
A few weeks ago Lawrence Krauss and James Dent posted an article to the arxiv about the cosmology of false vacuum decay. The idea behind the false vacuum theories is that the big bang may have arisen as a quantum fluctuation providing the energy and matter permitting the cosmos to...exist. Usually, this is related to the mechanism for inflation, but the idea that a bubble with nearly zero net energy quantum fluctuated itself into existence is sometimes offered as response to that eternal question of how it all began. However the reason I say "nearly zero" is that a fluctuation with a net amount of energy is forced to recollapse eventually. If there is a great deal of energy & matter this must happen soon, and if there is none, the false vacuum state can exist eternally. (Matter is positive, and gravitational attraction is negative, which is how they could manage to balance). Dark energy is seen in some of these models to represent the energy of the original vacuum, and so the amount of dark energy in the universe is the determining factor in how stable this temporary* false vacuum state is. We could then see from observations then that the universe has lasted longer than it is supposed to have, based on the statistics of quantum field theory.

Furthermore, being part of this quantum state, the value for the dark energy may exist within a range of values until observation pins it down. As far as I can tell, what they said in this paper was that at the current time, what we know about dark energy allows it to take a range of values, some good and some bad for the longevity of the universe. But if we constrained it definitively, it might end up being something that implies the false vacuum has persisted well past the point where it should have recollapsed. Or possibly the mere fact that we are able to measure it would be what implies that. Either way, the point would be that we might make observations that hint at our doom at the hands of a metastable quantum fluctuation.

OK. So this isn't the stupid part. The stupid part is that the Telegraph and its crack staff of junior varsity science journalists wrote up the article with the conclusion that it is the observation itself which is causing the vacuum decay. And they do it with all the grace and delicacy of a bull sipping tea. The thing that they keep missing in this piece is words like "imply" and "suggest," and instead blare out "Mankind 'shortening the universe's life'" in the title. And the quotes even make it appear that someone said this, while this is most definitely not the case. Or the caption for the photo of a completely irrelevant nebula that bears the totally erroneous caption "Cosmologists claim by observing dark energy the universe has been nudged closer to its death." No! "They"! Don't!

Krauss, who was interviewed for this, was clear (or at least as clear as you can get when describing field theory to a thousand monkeys typing on a thousand typewriters) on the fact that astronomers were not shortening the lifespan of the cosmos, saying

"In short, cosmological observations may suggest that the quantum state of our universe is such that the probability of long-term survival is limited," ...

And Prof Krauss stresses that resetting the cosmic clock was not something we have done to the universe but rather what our cosmologically observations may imply about our knowledge of the cosmic clock: "I did not mean to imply causality - namely that our measurement itself reduces the lifetime of the universe - but rather that by being able to make our measurement we may thus conclude that we may not be in the late decay stage."
The authors** then make the shocking decision to follow this up with the phrase "This is not the only damage to the heavens that astronomers may have caused..."

Forget science literacy, where is the regular literacy?

*In which thousands of generations lived and died, and billions upon billions of galaxies roared into existence and faded away. And the Mets managed to win the World Series twice.

**Yes, I'm sticking with authors, plural. That monkey-typewriter joke was gold.

Part I - Gregg Easterbrook: The Second 'g' is for 'gigantic moron'
Part II - Astronomers: Universe Killers
Part III - Surfer Physics
Part IV - Inane Physics Story Trajectories