Over the years I have supervised and mentored several PhD students, and recently our firm started to award scholarships to undergrads, and I was asked to support one such scholar. These scholars are from the best and brightest and so I got to thinking…
Graduates today have it tough, competition is tough, people work longer and harder than ever and stress is hitting us earlier and earlier in life – or so it seems. I would argue that, to some real extent, things have always been getting worse, and therefore by induction, we can prove that they have haven’t really changed at all.
No, the graduates of today have unparalleled opportunity to learn, to travel and to experience. The brightest graduates have the world at their feet and will be its commanders when we are are all retired and done for.
So what could I do to support this scholar? In the end it was easy – I asked myself – what do I know now that I wish I had known sooner? Most of this is in attitudes and is deep in my psychology, and is the result of direct experience – but it turns out that a healthy chunk of my scientific learning experience can be re-lived – by reading some of the books I think steered my course.
So I made a point to summarize some of the best science related books I have read (and some of the most useful internet resources I have found), and dumped the list complete with hyper-links in an email to the scholar. I hope she goes on to be president!
Now having gone to the effort, it would be a crime to keep this email secret, so here it is, (almost) verbatim!
As promised, here is a list of useful resources I wish I had known about when I was an undergrad. I am glad I got round to this, it should be useful for several other students I work with, and has also led to me revisiting a few things! I think I may brush it up and pop in on my blog if you don’t mind…obviously I won’t mention you!
Anyway, back to the business. To me, science is not all about chemistry, molecules, atoms, valence electrons and so on. To me, is is the process of trying to understand the world, and this set of materials I have hand picked, should you get through even a part of it, will not only educate but inspire.
This may not be the very best list, and I am sure there are many great books I have not read, but I have stuck with ones that I have, so you will have to rely on other people for further recommendations.
Jarrod’s reading list: science/psychology/economics & so on
- I’ll start with something really easy, relevant and engaging – an excellent (if quirky) summary of material science: The New Science of Strong Materials – Prof Gordon has written another on Structures that is also worth reading.
- Ok, this next one is not a book, but a paper; I like it because it shows that many stuffy professors are wrong when they prescribe boring scientific prose for papers. This paper uses the criminal “us” and “we” and discusses subjects as if with a friend. Shocking form, especially for a junior scientist. This paper by an unknown, changed the world.
- “Guns, Germs and Steel” – this is large-scale scientific thinking at its best- the book looks at how we can explain why the world is the way it is (especially the inequality) by looking at how technology spreads through societies.
- “Mistakes were made…but not by me” – this is required reading if you want to work with other people, so its basically for everyone then…
- Then to take it to the next level – “How the mind works…” – Stephen Pinker‘s other books are also good if you like this one.
- “Flatland”, (full text here) was written in 1884, and is essential reading because it defines the cliche “thinking outside of the box”.
- To make your upcoming economics courses more interesting, first read this easy-to-read popular book: “The Undercover Economist“.
- Also, Freakonomics– it’s shameless self promotion by egotistical authors, but hell they are smart, so put up with it.
- The Tipping Point – Malcolm Gladwell is a current thinker I really like; he’s not satisfied to focus on one thing for very long – his other books are on totally different stuff, but are equally thought provoking.
- “The selfish gene” – Obviously I would firstly recommend “On the Origin of Species”, (full text here) but if you are short of time (which you should be as an undergrad), you can learn most of the basics, and also get updated (well up to the 1970’s at any rate) by reading Dawkins’ classic.
- I couldn’t ignore statistics, so I will include two – one classic, “How to Lie with Statistics” and a more modern one “Reckoning with Risk“, they are quite different, but either will get the important points across.
Alas, books are perhaps becoming obsolete, so I better include some other media:-
- The first one is so good I can’t believe its free – try watch at least one a week, but the odd binge is essential too. http://www.ted.com/
- Next, an excellent physics recap (or primer) – but you need lots of time (or a long commute!) to get through this lot – look on the left menu for Podacts/Webcasts on this webpage: http://muller.lbl.gov/teaching/physics10/pffp.html – I cannot begin to praise the worthwhileness of this enough. It used to be called “Physics for future presidents” because it teaches you enough to understand the risks of nuclear energy, and the likelihood that we will all run our cars on water – and let you know when you are being duped or dazzled by big words.
- When I was somewhat younger there was a TV show called Cosmos, hosted by Carl Sagan, you may know of it. You could watch in now here, though obviously it is dated, so perhaps you shouldn’t; the reason I mention it, is because it was key in creating a generation of scientists, people who were inspired by Carl to be inspired by the universe. The previous generation had the space race and the moon landings to inspire them, but since then science has been on a downhill, with 3-mile island, global warming, etc, etc, and we have had no more Carl Sagans to cheer for us; Cosmos was a rare bit of resistance in the decline of the importance of science in society. You may also know that there have been battles in society (well in the circles on intelligentsia at any rate) about science – on the one had the ‘two cultures debate‘ and more recently, the ‘anti-science’ movement (suggested in books like “The Republican War on Science“. I do not wish to indoctrinate you, but rather make you aware that being a scientist used to be cooler and used to be more respected and something is indeed rotten in the state of Denmark.
- Getting back on track, here is an excellent guide to critical thinking (something else sadly lacking in the world) – don’t read it, listen to the podcast versions (also on itunes):
“A Magical Journey through the Land of Logical Fallacies” – Part 1 and Part 2
I think this should be taught in school. Brian Dunning’s other Skeptoid podcasts put these lessons into practice showing how a scientific approach can debunk an awful lot of the nonsense that is out there (alternative medicine, water dowsers, fortune tellers, ghost hunters, etc etc).
- If you do happen to have any time left, which I doubt, there are several other podcasts on critical thinking – that use a scientific approach to look at the world and current affairs: –
Postscipt – Dear readers, please feel free to append your own recommendations to my letter in the comments section below. If there is one thing I know well, and that’s how little I know. I feel I only started to read ‘the good stuff’ far too late in life, and so those with more years than me (or better mentors), please do share. But bear in mind, this is principally a science oriented list, and is meant to be accessible to undergraduates – I left out books like Principia Mathematica (Newton) because it is really rather unreadable – and the Princeton Science Library (though awesome) is probably a bit too intense. Also, in the 30 minutes since I sent the email, I have already thought of several others I sort of, well, forgot:
- Machiavelli’s The Prince (Full text) – tyranny as science!
- Galileo’s The Starry Messenger (Full Text)
- Copernicus’ On the Revolutions (Full text)
- and, of course, Gaarder’s Sophie’s World
That’s it for now…
I am busily researching a series of articles on energy, and thought htis article deserved an immediate link…
There is a growing movement, grassroots in nature, but starting to connect, called the skeptics community.
Who exactly are they? Are they people who are starting to uncover the truth – that most world governments are a sham and that secret societies control our every move? Do they deny the holocaust and suspect 9/11 was a complex plot?
A skeptic is merely someone who needs to be convinced of things through reason, rather than one who accepts things on some-one’s say-so.
So what is a global warming ‘skeptic’?
Climate science is complex, and consensus opinion is that man’s activity has led to increased greenhouse gas emissions which are likely to reduce outgoing radiation and thus lead to a net shift upward in the temperature of the Earth’s delicate surface. Yes, there are other possible causes, yes, the models contain assumptions, and yes, some fools have fabricated data to look cool. It is also true that many respected scientists will not say it is a cast iron ‘fact’.
So that is the scene – and there seem to be a few types of stakeholders:
- the ‘global warming denier’
- the ‘global warming skeptic’
- the regular ‘skeptic’
- and lastly, the gullible!
A ‘global warming denier’ has come to mean someone who does not think the evidence stacks up enough to warrant concern, or worse, thinks it is all a giant conspiracy.
A ‘global warming skeptic’ has come to be somewhat synonymous with a denier, but perhaps without the conspiracy angle. However, many are just people who are on the fence – they are often very smart, and don’t just believe what they are told, but on the other hand, they are easily misled, as there is just so much misinformation out there. They may be the ones who say “I heard the jury is out…” rather than actually looking at evidence.
Some legitimate scientists have foolishly allowed themselves to be given this label, just because they debate some small details (like the rate of heating, or the likely nature of socio-political impacts). These scientists are then lumped with deniers. Tough luck to them.
Now a true skeptic will weigh all evidence according to the following principles:
- is it logical?
- does it conflict with other strong theories? If so, is it strong enough warrant a change to your previous understanding?
- is there independent corroboration?
- do the proponents have a proven track record (credibility)?
- is there any incentive by stakeholders to twist the facts?
This describes most good scientists, so its not a bad thing.
In the case of global warming, most true skeptics who have looked closely at the evidence and weighed it appropriately, agree that there is real cause for concern.
But yes, we skeptics will always retain just a little doubt, because you just never know…
Ok, so we all want to be good to the environment. The first step to doing this, as is often the case – is to understand the main characters in the story – and possibly the biggest character in the story in Energy.
However, energy is such a very vague concept, so where do you go to learn more? Do you have to do a physics course?
I don’t think so, and to test my theory, I have tried to explain energy as briefly as I can in this post.
Energy is what makes the world go round. Literally. Every neuron that sparks in your brain, every electron that fires down a wire, every molecule burning in a fire, carries with it a sort of momentum that it passes on like a baton in a complex relay race. The batons are flooding in all directions all around us and across the universe – they are energy and we have learned how to harness them.
The actual word “Energy” is a much abused term nowadays – because energy is used to represent such a disparate range of phenomena from heat to light to speed to weight, and because it seems to be able to change forms so readily, it is cannon fodder for pseudo-scientific and spiritual interpretation. However, you will be pleased to hear that it actually has a very clear (and consistent) nature.
I like to think of energy being a bit like money – it is a sort of currency that can be traded. It takes on various forms (dollars/pounds/swiss francs) and can be eventually cashed in to achieve something. However, just like money, once spent, it does not vanish. It simply moves on a new chapter in its life and may be reused indefinitely.
To illustrate the point, let’s follow a ‘unit of energy’ through a visit to planet Earth to see what I mean. The [number] shows every time it changes currency (see the key on the right).
The energy starts off tied up in hydrogen atoms in the sun . Suddenly, due to the immense pressure and heat, the nuclei of several atoms react to form a brand new helium atom, and a burst of radiation is released. The radiation smashes into other nearby atoms heating them up so hot  that they glow, sending light  off into space. Several minutes pass in silence before the light bursts through the atmosphere and plunges down to the rainforest hitting a leaf. In the leaf the burst of power smashes a molecule of carbon dioxide and helps free the carbon to make food for the plant . The plant may be eaten (giving food ‘Calories’), or may fall to the ground and settle and age for millions of years turning perhaps to coal. That coal may be dug up and burned to give heat  in a power station, boiling water to supply compressed steam  that may drive a turbine  which may be used to generate electricity  which we may then use in our homes to heat/light/move/cook or perhaps to recharge our mobile phone . That energy will then be used to transmit microwaves when you make a call  which will mostly dissipate into the environment heating it (very) slightly . Eventually the warmed earth radiates  this excess of heat off into the void where perhaps it will have another life…
This short story is testament to an enormous quantity of learning by our species, but there are some clear exclusions to be read into the story:
- Energy fields (auras) or the energy lines in the body that conduct the “chi” (or life force) of Asian medical tradition
- Energy lines on the Earth (aka Ley lines)
- Negative or positive energy (as in positive or negative “vibes”)
These energy currencies relate to theories and beliefs that science has been unable to verify and thus they have no known “exchange rate”. Asking how many light bulbs can you power with your Chi is thus a nonsensical question, whereas it would not be for any scientifically supported form of energy. And since energy flows account for all actions in the universe, not being exchangeable would be rather limiting.
Where exactly is Energy kept?
This may sound like s strange question, we know Energy is kept in batteries, petrol tanks and chocolate chip cookies. But the question is, where exactly is it stored in those things?
Energy is stored in several ways:
- as movement – any mass moving has energy by virtue of the movement, which is called Kinetic Energy
- as matter – Einstein figured out that matter is just a form of energy, and the exchange rate is amazing – 1g = 90,000,000,000,000,000 joules (from E=mc^2)
- as tension in force fields
That last one sounds a bit cryptic, but actually most of the energy we use is in this form – petrol, food, batteries and even a raised hammer all store energy in what are essentially compressed (or stretched springs).
What is a force field? Why on earth did I have to bring that up?
All of space (even the interstellar vacuum) is permeated by force fields. The one we all know best is gravity – we know that if we lift a weight, we have to exert effort and that effort is then stored in that weight and can be recovered later by dropping it on your foot.
Gravity is only one of several force fields known to science. Magnetic fields are very similar – it takes energy to pull a magnet off the fridge , and so it is actually an energy store when kept away from the fridge.
The next force field is that created by electric charge (the electric field). For many years this was though to be a field all on its own, but a chap called Maxwell realised that electric fields and magnetic fields are in some senses two sides of the same coin, so physicists now talk of ‘electromagnetic’ fields. It turns out that electric energy (such as that stored in a capacitor) consists of tensions in this field, much like a raised weight is a tension in a gravity field. Perhaps surprisingly, light (as well as radio waves, microwaves and x-rays) are also energy stored in fluctuations of an energy field.
Much chemical energy is also stored in electric fields – for example, most atoms consist of positively charged nuclei and negatively charged electrons, and the further apart they are kept, the more energy they hold, just liked raised weights. As an electron is allowed to get closer to the nucleus, energy is released (generally as radiation, such as light – thus hot things glow).
The least well known force field is the strong ‘nuclear’ force. This is the forces that holds the subatomic particles (protons) together in the nucleus of atoms. Since the protons are all positively charged, they should want to repel each other, but something is keeping them at bay, and so physicists have inferred this force field must exist. It turns out their theory holds water, because if you can drag these protons a little bit apart, they will suddenly fly off with gusto. The strong nuclear force turns out to be bloody strong, but only works over a tiny distance. It rarely affects us as we rarely store energy with this energy field.
Now we understand force fields we can look at how molecules (petrol, oxygen, chocolate) store energy. All molecules are made of atoms connected to one other via various ‘bonds’ and these bonds are like springs. Different types of molecules have different amount of tension in these bonds – it turns out coal molecules, created millions of years ago with energy from the sun, are crammed full of tense bonds that are dying to re-arrnage to more relaxed configurations, which is exactly what happens when we apply oxygen and the little heat to start the reaction.
The complexity of the tensions in molecules are perhaps the most amazing in nature, as it is their re-arrangements that fuel life as we know it.
What exactly is Heat then?
You may have noticed that I did not include heat as a form of energy store above. But surely hot things are an energy store?
Yes, they are, but heat is actually just a sort of illusion. We use heat as a catch all term to describe the kinetic energy of the molecules and atoms. If you have a bottle of air, the temperature of the air is a direct consequence of the average speed of the molecules of gas jetting around bashing into one another.
As you heat the air, you are actually just increasing the speed of particles. If you compress the air, you may not increase their speed, but you will have more particles in the same volume, which also ‘feels’ hotter.
Solids are a little different – the atoms and molecules in solids do not have the freedom to fly around, so instead, they vibrate. It is like each molecule is constrained by elastic bands pulling in all directions. If the molecule is still, it is cold, but if it is bouncing around like a pinball, then it has kinetic energy, and feels hotter.
You can see from this viewpoint, that to talk of the temperature of an atom, or of a vacuum, is meaningless, because temperature is a macroscopic property of matter. On the other hand, you could technically argue that a flying bullet is red hot because it has so much kinetic energy…
Is Energy Reusable?
We as a species, have learned how to tap into flows of energy to get them to do our bidding. So big question: Will we use it all up?
Scientists have found that energy is pretty much indestructable – it is never “used-up”, it merely flows from one form into another. The problem is thus not that we will run out, but that we might foolishly convert it all into some unusable form.
Electricity is an example of really useful energy – we have machines that convert electricity into almost anything, whereas heat is only useful if you are cold, and light is only useful if you are in the dark.
Engineers also talk about the quality (or grade) of energy. An engineer would always prefer 1 litre of water 70 degrees warmer than room temperature, than 70 litres of water 1 degree warmer, even though these contain roughly the same embodied energy. You can use the hot water to boil an egg, or make tea, or you could mix it with 69 litres of room temperature water to heat it all by 1 degree. It is more flexible.
Unfortunately, most of the machines we use, turn good energy (electricity, petrol, light) into bad energy (usually “low grade heat”).
Why is low grade heat so bad? It turns out we have no decent machine to convert low grade heat into other forms of energy. In fact we cannot technically convert any forms of heat into energy unless we have something cold to hand which we are also willing to warm up; our machines can thus only extract energy by using hot an cold things together. A steam engine relies just as much on the environment that cools and condenses water vapour as it does on the coal its belly. Power stations rely on their cooling towers as much as their furnaces. It turns out that all our heat machines are stuck in this trap.
So, in summary, heat itself is not useful – it is temperature differences that we know how to harness, and the bigger the better.
This picture of energy lets us think differently about how we interact with energy. We have learned a few key facts:
- Energy is not destroyed, and cannot be totally used up – this should give us hope
- Energy is harnessed to do our dirty work, but tends to end up stuck in some ‘hard to use’ form
So all we need to do to save ourselves is:
- Re-use the same energy over and over
- by finding some way to extract energy from low grade heat
Alas, this is a harder nut to crack than fission power, so I am not holding my breath. It turns out that there is another annoying universal law that says that every time energy flows, it will somehow become less useful, like water running downhill. This is because energy can only flow one way: from something hot to something cold – thus once something hot and something cold meet and the temperature evens out, you have forever lost the useful energy you had.
It is as if we had a mountain range and were using avalanches to drive our engines. Not only will our mountains get shorter over time but our valleys will fill up too, and soon we will live on a flat plane and our engines will be silent.
So the useful energy in the universe is being used up. Should we worry?
Yes and no.
Yes, you should worry because locally we are running out of easy sources of energy and will now have to start using sustainable ones. If we do not ramp up fast enough we will have catastrophic shortages.
No, should should no worry that we will run out, because there are sustainable sources – the sun pumps out so much more than we use, it is virtually limitless.
Oh, and yes again – because burning everything is messing up the chemistry of the atmosphere, which is also likely to cause catastrophe. Good news is that the solution to this is the same – most renewable energy sources do not have this unhappy side effect.
Oh, and in the really long term, yes we should worry again. All the energy in the universe will eventually convert to heat, and the heat will probably spread evenly throughout the universe, and even though all the energy will still be present and accounted for, it would be impossible to use and the universe would basically stop. Pretty dismal, but this is what many physicists believe: we all exist in the eddy currents of heat flows as the universe gradually heads for a luke-warm, and dead, equilibrium.
Ok, so it was longer than a page, so sue me. If you liked this article, my first in a series on energy conservation, you might like my series on efficient motoring.
Please leave a comment, I seem to have very clued-up readers and always love know what you think!
 Radiation (like sunlight) is a flow of energy, and energy content relates the frequency according to E=hf (h is the Planck constant).
 Chemical energy – the most complex energy, a mixture of different tensions in nuclear and electromagnetic force fields.
 Thermal (heat) energy- this is really just a sneaky form of kinetic energy [6 below] – small particles moving and vibrating fast are sensed by us as heat.
 Compression (or tension) energy – while compressed air is again a sneaky form of kinetic energy , a compressed spring is different – it’s energy is more like chemical energy and is stored by creating tension in the force fields present in nature (gravity, electromagnetism and nuclear forces).
 Electrical energy – this energy, like a compressed spring, is stored as stress in force fields, in this case electromagnetic force-fields.
The Silent Contract
If you have ever played a sport competitively, there is good chance you have experienced a blatant error by the referee. If you are anything like me, and if the game is balanced on a knife edge, there is a good chance your blood pressure shot right up and you had some kind words to say about the ref’s eyesight and quite possibly the ref’s mother too.
However, in those moments of blind frustration, that rule: “the ref’s word is final” seems so wrong. In big-brother/1984 style, once the ref says it was a foul, it was a foul and unless he changes his mind within a few seconds it will be forever recorded in history as a foul. The real true events become an irrelevant fantasy.
This policy clearly does not serve the ‘truth’, so why has it developed in so many sports?
Most footballers understand why – and most judges understand why.
Let us consider what would happen if the ref’s word were not final.
Imagine a system of democratic debate and judgement over all close-calls at a sports event. Recall that all contenders and most of the audience are highly partisan. It would not be football, it would be a debate. It is obvious you need someone impartial, and you need something quick.
So what actually happens is that all stakeholders enter a silent contract to accept the ref’s errors in order to keep the game lively.
Implications in Law
So we have an example where we in society are willing to accept that the truth is not the priority. I am OK with this on the football field, but this type of pragmatism is actually used every day in the legal system, which is rather scary to me.
There is a lot in common between a ref and a judge, or indeed a jury. It falls on them to decide the official version of truth based upon the available evidence.
However, because the consequences of legal judgement are routinely more extreme than a free-kick, a more considered system usually develops. In most western courts, there is now a ‘threshold’ (called ‘reasonable doubt’ in the US) beyond which ‘the probable” becomes ‘the fact’. If this sounds rather crude, its because it is – they are saying that after they look at the evidence, and place the judgement on a scale of probability (0-100%) that they will set a number, above which the person is guilty and below which they are not – giving our grey world a little more contrast.
If they set the threshold at 100%, to ensure that no innocent man is ever convicted, you would convict no one. If they lower it to get more practical conviction rates, they will soon start to convict the innocent. Thus a compromise needs to be reached – the exact level will be a moving feast, but will generally reflect the culture and the Zeitgeist.
Who else has has to make a call about truth?
Scientists are also trying to discern ‘truth’ – about magnetism, about cellular function, about black holes, well about most everything really.
Yes, they do use pragmatism – we, for example, continue to use Newton’s Laws in most calculations because we know they work well enough for most practical purposes. We also continue to build on theories that have inherent contradictions (meaning that are probably flawed), because history has shown that such pragmatism still moves us forward and is better than getting ‘stuck’. Yes, it does lead to some waste, some researcher’s entire lives are built on earlier mistakes that were ‘pragmatically’ ignored (think of homeopathy).
However, in the end, the scientist has to keep record of all pragmatism and return to it and root it out, because in science, the truth is the target, and no compromise can be left on the books.
This raises an interesting tension when a scientist is brought into legal proceedings to provide ‘opinion’. Judges (and politicians) mistakenly think that science deals in facts (not probabilities), and would also ask a scientist to make a pragmatic call ‘yes, this is the suspect’s DNA’. A good scientist would leave judgement to the judge and sprinkle their statements liberally with the word ‘probability’.
But can a legal system make judgements with probabilities? Without thresholds and verdicts? Could we dole out punishment in proportion to the probability of guilt? Could we punish several people for one crime if we know one of them did it? I don’t know if we could.
Has such a system cropped up anywhere? I don’t know if it has.
So science can leave matters undecided on the basis that more evidence may come, but science too, from time to time, may benefit from a little pragmatism – because just as in the law-courts, we have the power to set potential killers loose with our inability to be decisive. Think of two words: ‘global’ and ‘warming’.
That worked for me until the end of high school.
At university, I was a true nerd. I read all my textbooks cover to cover (mainly because as I was too shy for girls and too poor for booze). During this time, the definition above started to fail. So much of the science was maths, statistics, observation, pattern recognition, logic and quite a bit of rote learning. Not all of it fitted into my definition of science. I became a fan of a new definition: science is the study of the nature of reality .
But then I did post-grad, and I realised that not much in science is ‘proven’ (I guess this is the point of post grad study). Evolution, for example, is not proven. That the sun revolves around the earth is not ‘proven’. I discovered that the only things that could be proven were ‘ideas’ about ‘other ideas’. Bear with me on this one.
Let us say we define the number system – this is an ‘idea’ or conceptual construction. Within this construction we can ‘prove’ that one and one is two. Because we ‘made’ the system, with rules, then we can make factual and true statements about it. We can’t do this about the real world – we cannot say anything with absolute certainly because we rely on flaky inputs like our own highly fallible perception.
It’s like that old chestnut: how can you be sure you are not living in a giant simulation? Of course you can argue that it is pretty unlikely and I would agree, and right there we have a clue to a better definition of science.
It turns out that much of modern science deals in ‘likelihood’ and ‘probability’ rather than proof and certainty. For example, we can say that the theory of evolution is very likely to be more-or-less right, as there is a lot of corroborating evidence. Science cannot be run like a law court – where the prosecution only need to reach a threshold of reasonable doubt to ‘prove’ someone guilty.Aside for nerds: Science says you can use logic to prove things absolutely, but logic only works with ideas, and there is a breakdown between ideas and reality, so one can never prove things in reality. So it is thoroughly wrong for a court to say that someone has been proven guilty. The courts use this language as a convenience, to “draw a line under” a case as they have not found a moral way to dole out punishments based on probabilities. Imagine a world in which a murder suspect gets a 5 year sentence because the was a 20% chance he was guilty! Sports referees often operate in this decisive way, perhaps because it saves a lot of arguing!
Anyway, good science cannot just give up and say once there is consensus something passes from theory to fact. This is sloppy. We have to keep our options open – forever.
Think for example of Newton’s Laws of Motion. They are called ‘Laws’ because the scientific community had so much faith in them they passed from theory (or a proposed model) to accepted fact. But they were then found wrong. Strange that we persist in calling them laws!
It took Einstein’s courage (and open mindedness) to try out theories that dispensed with a key plank of the laws – that time was utterly inflexible and completely constant and reliable.
So it is that the canon of scientific knowledge has become a complex web of evidence and theories that attempt to ‘best fit’ the evidence.
Alas, there are still many propositions that many so-called scientists would claim are fact or at least ‘above reproach’. Evolution is attacked (rather pathetically), but the defenders would do well to take care before they call it ‘fact’. It is not fact, it is a superbly good explanation for the evidence, which has yet to fail a test of its predictions. So it is very very likely to be right, but it cannot be said to be fact.
This is not just a point of pedantry (though I am a bit of a pedant) – it is critical to keep this in mind as it is the key to improving our model.
Two great examples of models people forget are still in flux…
1) The big bang theory
2) Quantum theory
I will not go into global warming here though it is tempting. That is one where it doesn’t even matter if it is fact, because game theory tells you that either way, we better stop making CO2 urgently.
Back to the big bang.
I heard on the Skeptic’s Guide podcast today about an NSF questionnaire that quizzed people about whether they believed the universe was started with a massive explosion, and they tried to paint the picture that if you didn’t believe that, then you were ignorant of science. This annoyed me, because the big bang theory is now too often spoken of as if it were fact. Yes, the theory contributes viable explanations for red-shifted pulsars, background radiation, etc, etc, but people are quick to forget that it is an extrapolation relying on a fairly tall pile of suppositions.
I am not saying it is wrong, all I am saying is that it would be crazy to stop exploring other possibilities at this point.
You get a feeling for the sort of doubts you should have from the following thought experiment:
Imagine you are a photon born in the big bang. You have no mass, so you cannot help but travel at ‘light speed’. But being an obedient photon, you obey the contractions in the Lorentz equations to the letter, and time thus cannot pass for you. However, you are minding your own business one day when suddenly you zoom down toward planet earth and head straight into a big radiotelescope. Scientists analyse you and declare that you are background radiation dating from the big bang and that you have been travelling for over 13 billion years (they know this because they can backtrack the expansion of the universe). Only trouble is, that for you, no time has passed, so for you, the universe is still new. Who is right? What about a particle that was travelling at 0.999 x the speed of light since the big bang? For it, the universe is some other intermediate age. So how old is the universe, really?
This reminds us of the fundamental proposition of relatively – time is like a gooey compressible stretchable mess, and so is space, so the distance across the universe may be 13.5 billion light years, or it might be a micron (how it felt to the photon). It all depends on your perspective. It is much like the statement that the sun does not revolve around the earth and that it is the other way around. No! The sun does revolve a round the earth. You can see it clearly does. From our perspective at least.
Now, quantum theory.
Where do I start? String theory? Entanglement? Please.
The study of forces, particles, EM radiation and the like is the most exciting part of science. But being so complex, so mysterious, so weird and counter intuitive, it is super vulnerable to abuse.
Most people have no idea how to judge the merits of quantum theories. Physicists are so deep in there, they have little time (or desire or capability) to explain themselves. They also love the mystique.
I do not want to ingratiate myself with physicists, so I will add that the vast majority have complete integrity. They do want to understand and then share. However, I have been working in the field for long enough to know that there are weaknesses, holes and downright contradictions in the modern theory that are often underplayed. In fact these weaknesses are what make the field so attractive to people like me, but is also a dirty little secret.
The fact is that the three forces (weak nuclear, strong nuclear and magnetic) have not been explained anything like as well as gravity has (by relativity). And don’t get me started on quantum gravity.
Anyway, thinking about all these issues, I concluded that science was (definition #3) the grand (platonic) model we are building of reality, ever evolving to best fit our observations.
That works well for me. However, I recently came across a totally different definition for science:
# 4) “Science is a tool to help make the subjective objective.”
OK I paraphrased it to make it more snappy. It was really a discussion about how science was developed to overcome the fallibility of the human mind. Examples of weaknesses it needs to overcome are:
- The way our perception is filtered by preconceptions
- How we see pattern where there is none
- How we select evidence to match our opinion (confirmation bias)
- How we read too much into anecdotal evidence
- etc etc.
I could go on. So ‘science’ is the collection of tricks we use to overcome our weaknesses.
I like this definition. We are all going about, and in our heads we are building our model of the world… and its time for an audit!
Thus, when we communicate, a key challenge is to make the intended message match the received message as closely as possible. Thus effective communicators are very good at getting into the mind of the audience and seeing or hearing the message from their perspective.
Of course, not everyone can do this. One way this is resolved is by taking advantage of two way communication – if the listener can paraphrase what you are telling them, as a sort of parity check on the message, then any misunderstandings can be revealed and dealt with. But this requires a good listener.
It is also important that if the message has a ‘thread’ (like a storyline) that the listener does not lose that thread due to some short lived issue – missed words due to accent, background noise or indeed the use of unfamiliar words and jargon.
Thus, when telling a story there needs to be redundancy in the message (just like in electronic communication protocols) such that if the thread is dropped it may be picked up again.
I recently moved to the USA from the UK and am currently learning how to communicate across a cultural divide.
Anyone would think that Americans would speak English and perhaps they do, but ‘English’ is such a broad church that it allows for different groups to live their entire lives using only slightly overlapping subsets of the language. Observing these vocabulary differences I have noticed a sort of one-way breakdown that occurs in this case…
Just like a diode can allow electric current to flow one way and not another, it seems that poor vocabulary matching can have a similar effect on a message. It turns out that when Americans talk at me, I can easily recognize the words I don’t know, but when I talk I cannot recognize (or predict) the words they won’t know.
This may seem like a statement of the blindingly obvious, but it is the same effect as the card trick when the magician shows you a bunch of cards, say ten, and asks you to pick one and remember it. He will then shuffle the cards and show them to you again and tell you that your card has been removed. Lo and behold, your card is gone. Amazing, how did they know which one to remove, what are the chances!?
Well the trick is simple, the magician changed ALL the cards with sleight of hand, and relied on the fact that you didn’t bother to memorize the ‘other’ cards.
It is similar to the issue with speaking to foreigners – it is very hard to know which of your words are missing from their vocab. You can spend weeks or months living with them and you will pick up their vocab but you will find it hard to notice the words they don’t use. Thus after a while, a foreigner will understand pretty much all he or she hears, but when they talk, will still be poorly understood as they will persist in using unknown words.
Thus the flow of information is retarded in one direction only. I think this is a neat observation. That is to say, it is cool and clever, not clean and tidy 🙂
It has been explained by writers better than I how our minds are wired in a way that makes them vulnerable to religion.
Whether it is our desire to feel secure or have simple and complete explanations for natural phenomena or simply because we enjoy the social scene at church, there is no doubting the power of the effect. Even in modern times, entire lives, indeed entire civilizations are devoted to the superstitious concept of supernatural Gods.
Although L. Ron Hubbard may have started a religion while knowing it was all a sham, most religions did not need such deliberate action. Our innate need to have faith in things has allowed religious concepts to emerge and evolve freely in our communities as far back as records go.
So why do I bring that up?
It occurred to me today while pondering why people are so defensive about Apple Mac computers – I realised that their behaviour had much in common with religious ‘zeal’.
Then it occurred to me how much the success of Apple relies on perception and conception. If it was just about getting the fastest computer, you would not buy a Mac. If it was about buying something that has wide compatibility, you would not buy a Mac. If it was about cost, you certainly would not buy a Mac.
Some might argue that Macs are more intuitive and ‘easy to use’. These are people whose idea of computing is buying a shiny box, plugging it in and doing exactly what they are expected to do. They are people who just accept it when they are told they need to buy a new printer. Or worse, they blame the printer – what a crappy printer, not compatible! These are people who do not need to set up a complex network, or run a database server.
Anyone who has a Powerbook G4 that cost several grand and is not actually compatible with the latest OSX release, yet needs that OSX release in order to actually work, and still hugs and caresses the machine as it it were a newborn baby while defending its honour and wanting to spend another several grand on a newer shinier one, is, in my opinion, dabbling in a cult.
OK, before you write me off as some sort of anti-mac fanatic, I will admit they are beautiful.
Moving swiftly on, I think it is worth analysing Apple’s success.
How does a company that controls the details of their products so completely compete with a product (the PC) that is made by hundreds of companies all constantly competing, innovating, coming and going, rising and falling? The modular design of the PC allows almost anyone to buy all the bits and assemble the machine themselves; with so many companies making monitors and keyboards and hard drives, some will make bad (fatal) decisions and die, some will make good decisions and thrive and if there are enough upstarts to keep up the supply, the consumer will only ever see the winners, even if their victory was a flook, it was a victory none the less.
You could say that PC is the computer you get from natural selection (survival of the fittest), the Mac is the the computer you get when you try to control the evolution (unnatural selection).
Now a company that tries to make everything itself can capture the value chain, sure, but as it is only one company, it cannot make even one fatal decision, and thus needs to be a little more cautious. This means it is doomed to always lag slightly on the performance vs value curve – so what does it do?
Easy, get the consumer to accept poor value. Make up for performance by buying in high quality technologies (lcd screens, hard disks, etc), and make the customer pay the premium. Then focus on marketing.
Marketing is the art of making people want something. It is unnecessary for products people need.
So what happened at Apple?
Apple, perhaps by good luck, became perceived as a David vs the Goliaths of IBM and Microsoft. For some reason (was it deliberate?) Apple computers gained traction in music recording and graphic design, and gained a sort of bohemian chic that is rather impressive considering that it is essentially “Big Business” and, like most companies, designed to make money.
Clever partnerships, and particularly the inspired partnership with Adobe (think Acrobat PDF’s, think PhotoShop) strengthened their position with journalists, publishers and illustrators establishing the Mac as the creative profession’s computer of choice.
This turned out to be a good thing, as the naughties have been the most art friendly decade yet, as popular culture has come to resent things like ‘work’ and ‘industry’, and a certain sections of society have come to view activities like sport as trivial and meaningless when compared to the value and depth in culture, poetry, good food, yoga, spiritualism and so on.
In other words, the artists have moved up in the world.
Some of the more switched on folk will realise that brands like Gucci/Armani/Christian Dior or Ferrari/Porche/Aston Martin or Rolex/Michel Herbelin/Patek Philippe are based entirely on massaging the egos of their customers, and in the last case, they probably don’t even keep better time than a black plastic Casio.
But not many of the arty crowd have realised that Apple is using their independent nature against them. The Mac user seems to be infected with the idea that in using a Mac they are somehow being beneficent to the world, will somehow be more creative, they they are part of some loving brotherhood that has exclusive access to the truth and the light.
This is because, by accident or design, the Apple brand has been developed to find that part of our mind that wants to believe and wants to belong, and is easily dazzled; the brand is acting like a religion.
Apple’s alliance with artists continues with U2 and the Black Eyes Peas, both highly credible symbols of free-thinking modernism. But I want you to ask yourself: what is free thinking about this computer company? I’m not sure, but I suspect the only free-thinking thing about Apple is its association with icons of the free-thinking world. It is just an electronics company for Pete’s sake. Like Sony, like Samsung, like Nokia.
If you believe there is any more to it than that, then you are welcome to pay for it.
PS: Besides the defunct G4 in the drawer, there is also an iPod classic in my home. I like it. I like to hold it. Mmm.
“Fashion is the art of making people unhappy with the perfectly good clothes they already have.”
Jarrod Hart, 2001