November 30, 2010

The Guardian wonders aloud about science

Once again, I am puzzled by how the British public has a better understanding of science than us, while the science journalism in that country seems to be much worse. Last week for example, I saw probably the worst sub-headline ever in the Telegraph:

Antimatter has been captured by scientists for the first time in an astonishing physics breakthrough that echoes the hit Hollywood movie Angels & Demons.
I wrote about some of their other shoddy work a while ago too. The Telegraph rarely disappoints (unless you are looking for it to actually be right). It seems like the headlines are particularly bad, so that might have something to do with having to compete with tabloids, or some cross-pollination or something.

So today when I caught this piece in the Guardian, often the least bad of the UK newspapers for science: "Ten Questions Science Must Answer" I expected the worst. It is the 350th anniversary of the Royal Society and they were trying to come up with what challenging issues lie ahead of us in the near future. I usually enjoy lists like this, because they are a nice reminder of the big picture questions that many of us are working towards in a small way, or simply things that are unexplained by science, but part of common human experience. Science did a good one a few years ago, for instance (and weirdly, there is a wikipedia article titled "List of unsolved problems in physics"). This page is really good too. And there are white papers and yearly reviews in journals that are cool to look at, and more specific. So since the Guardian is just winging it, it has the potential for broad appeal, or disastrously poor scholarship. Because of the format though, it's a little of both. Instead of getting in, you know, scientists, who might know a thing or two about where their field is at the moment, and what is currently understood, and where it is ultimately all leading they seem to have been content to go halfway, and have non-scientists simply speculate about what they don't know about. I can't blame the random novelists and poets for not being on the cutting edge of organic chemistry, but why are they being asked in the first place? When they're cobbling together lists of "greatest movies of the past 50 years" or whatever, why aren't they getting Neil deGrass Tyson in there?

So most of the actual things they come up with aren't so bad:
What is consciousness?
Is there a pattern to the prime numbers?
Can humanity get to the stars?

And a couple of the novelists manage to ask not-idiotic things like:
How are we going to cope with the world's burgeoning population?
Will I be able to record my brain like I can record a programme on television?

Probably the most thought-provoking is Brian Cox's "Can we make a scientific way of thinking all pervasive?"
This would be the greatest achievement for science over the coming centuries. I say this because I do not believe that we currently run our world according to evidence-based principles. [...]
One only has to look at the so-called controversies in areas such as climate science or the vaccination of our children to see that the rationalist project is far from triumphant at the turn of the 21st century – indeed, it is possible to argue that it is under threat. I believe that we will only be able to build a safer, fairer, more prosperous and more peaceful world when a majority of the population understand the methods of science and accept the guidance offered by an evidence-based investigation of the challenges ahead. Scientific education must therefore be the foundation upon which our future rests.

Which is followed by John Sulston saying essentially the same thing but with a focus on the tension between liberal democratic government and the inability of these kinds of governments to work collectively to solve large-scale problems that most of the population doesn't recognize or understand. Both interesting and important questions; so far, so good.

Then we get this gibbrish by "broadcaster and writer" Joan Bakewell:
What happened before the big bang?

To simply declare – as some scientists do – there was no space or time before the big bang and that the question is therefore meaningless is hard to accept, as it suggests matter was created out of nothing. But then if there was some kind of pre-existing primordial chaos that was fashioned into the universe by the hand of God, then where did the chaos come from?

At the other end of the timescale, I'd like to know whether robots will ever supercede humans. We are told scientists have already created artificial intelligence that can respond to emotion, but will they be able to go beyond getting robots to affect responses and generate feelings spontaneously – such as falling in love?...

And it goes on like that. OK, there is nothing wrong with wondering this about the big bang, and it certainly doesn't make you stupid to not understand the subtleties of cosmology, but this isn't actually an open question, which is the point of the article. Time is a dimension, and dimensions may be bounded. It is difficult to accept intuitively, because the passage of time seems like something fundamental, but asking what came before the big bang is analogous to asking what is north of the north pole. It is a singularity, the question simply has no meaning. It's like asking what the big bang "expanded into" or something -- not a stupid question unless you were born with an innate intuition for higher dimensions, but not actually a new area for discovery. Scientists aren't going around arrogantly "declaring" things to irritate you, if you asked one about it, she'd explain what it means, not spit on you for not majoring in physics. Acting like there is some attitude problem, where we all go along with something that non-scientists can easily poke holes in just to frustrate them is ridiculous and illogical. And what the hell was that jargon about robots? Why didn't someone read this before it got in a newspaper? This article was written or compiled by Martin Rees, the president of the Royal Society and an astronomer, who surely knows that the time question is nonsense (at least the way it was phrased). Why doesn't anyone check these things?

Then we have a poet laureate, Andrew Motion, spouting off on what reads like a genuine plea to have someone explain things to him:
Can someone explain adequately the meaning of infinite space?

The idea of there being no end to space seems logically impossible. How can there be no limits to space? We know the universe is expanding, but what is it expanding into? Is it squeezing into something else and making that contract, or is the universe just venturing into nothingness? In which case, nothingness and somethingness appear to be much the same. We are also told the universe may contract in time; this raises similar questions. What replaces the space that was the something of the universe?

On a more frivolous level, I'd also like to know whether my cat is fully evolved as a species. She certainly gives every impression of having pretty much everything she needs. Following on from this, I'd also like to know whether humans are the final step in the primate evolutionary ladder, or whether there will be another species running the world one day while we get locked up in zoos and forced to smoke cigarettes in laboratories. I'd die a happy man with answers to these questions.

Hey look! I wrote that thing about what space "expands into" and here he goes and wonders about exactly that! It's incredible. Again, these are questions that you could find out the answers to by googling -- they are not unsolved mysteries for the Royal Society to get around to. Here's an idea: instead of wondering aloud about your own ignorance in a national newspaper, why don't you just read a book about it? There are zillions of books about cosmology written for a popular audience. And then there is that nonsense about cat evolution that just demonstrates he doesn't know the basics of biology either. Why didn't the person who took down this quote just tell him that those aren't open questions? I am so annoyed by this guy getting his uninquisitive musings published that instead of kindly explaining them in the patient and eloquent manner that I am known for, I am going to dismissively and angrily jot down responses to each of the questions he poses. In order:
- There just can
- The idea of something being "outside the universe" is meaningless: counterfactual
- No and no
- Counterfactual
- All living animals are "fully evolved"
- There is no "final" step in evolution, species don't evolve "toward" something, they evolve to adapt to or flourish in their environment.

There, I just solved 10% of the mysteries of the universe.

Ironically, by seemingly not having anyone edit these, they're contributing to the science-education problems that two of the prescient commenters pointed out! With garbage like this, how are the people there better educated on science issues? I would genuinely like to know...maybe without researching it, I should try to get my pointless witterings published in a newspaper and then someone will tell me...

Guardian - Ten Questions Science Must Answer