*Formerly, CORI Bulletin* for Members of Central Ohioans for Rational Inquiry.)
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"The power of accurate observation is commonly called cynicism by those who have not got it."
[George Bernard Shaw]
"Speak properly, and in as few words as you can, but always plainly;
for the end of speech is not ostentation, but to be understood."
REMINDER - our intrepid band of skeptics is invited back to Hank & Milene's digs this Saturday, December 3. Apparently everyone was on h(is)(er) best behavior last month!
THEORY OF ANYTHING?
Physicist Lawrence Krauss turns on his own.
By Paul Boutin, Silicon Valley writer who spent 15 years as a software engineer and manager, writing @ Slate.com Nov. 23, 2005
Lawrence Krauss, a professor of physics and astronomy at Case Western Reserve University, has a reputation for shooting down pseudoscience. He opposed the teaching of intelligent design on The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer. He penned an essay for the New York Times that dissed President Bush's proposal for a manned Mars mission. Yet in his latest book, Hiding in the Mirror, Krauss turns on his own—by taking on string theory, the leading edge of theoretical physics. Krauss is probably right that string theory is a threat to science, but his book proves he's too late to stop it.
String theory, which stretches back to the late 1960s, has become in the last 20 years the field of choice for up-and-coming physics researchers. Many of them hope it will deliver a "Theory of Everything"—the key to a few elegant equations that explain the workings of the entire universe, from quarks to galaxies.
Elegance is a term theorists apply to formulas, like E=mc2, which are simple and symmetrical yet have great scope and power. The concept has become so associatedNova's three-hour 2003 series on the topic was titled The Elegant Universe (you can watch the whole thing online for free here). with string theory that
Yet a demonstration of string theory's mathematical elegance was conspicuously absent from Nova's special effects and on-location shoots. No one explained any of the math onscreen. That's because compared to E=mc2, string theory equations look like spaghetti. And unfortunately for the aspirations of its proponents, the ideas are just as hard to explain in words. Let's give it a shot anyway, by retracing the 20th century's three big breakthroughs in understanding the universe.
Step 1: Relativity (1905-1915). Einstein's Special Theory of Relativity says matter and energy (E and m) General Theory of Relativity says gravity is caused by the warping of space due to the presence of matter. In 1905, this seemed like opium-smoking nonsense. But Einstein's complex math (E=mc2 is the easy part) accurately predicted oddball behaviors in stars and galaxies that were later observed and confirmed by astronomers. in the famous equation) are equivalent. His
Step 2: Quantum mechanics (1900-1927). Relativistic math works wonderfully for predicting events at the galactic scale, but physicists found that subatomic particles don't obey the rules. Their behavior follows complex probability formulas rather than graceful high-school geometry. The results of particle physics experiments can't be determined exactly—you can only calculate the likeliness of each possible outcome.
Quantum's elegant equation is the Heisenberg uncertainty principle. It says the position (x) and momentum (p) of any one particle are never completely knowable at the same time. The closest you can get is a function related to Planck's constant (h), the theoretical minimum unit to which the universe can be quantized.
Einstein dismissed this probabilistic model of the universe with his famous quip, "God does not play dice." But just as Einstein's own theories were vindicated by real-world tests, he had to adjust his worldview when experimental results matched quantum's crazy predictions over and over again.
These two breakthroughs left scientists with one major problem. If relativity and quantum mechanics are both correct, they should work in agreement to model the Big Bang, the point 14 billion years ago at which the universe was at the same time supermassive (where relativity works) and supersmall (where quantum math holds). Instead, the math breaks down. Einstein spent his last three decades unsuccessfully seeking a formula to reconcile it all—a Theory of Everything.
Step 3: String theory (1969-present). String theory proposes a solution that reconciles relativity and quantum mechanics. To get there, it requires two radical changes in our view of the universe. The first is easy: What we've presumed are subatomic particles are actually tiny vibrating strings of energy, each 100 billion billion times smaller than the protons at the nucleus of an atom.
That's easy to accept. But for the math to work, there also must be more physical dimensions to reality than the three of space and one of time that we can perceive. The most popular string models require 10 or 11 dimensions. What we perceive as solid matter is mathematically explainable as the three-dimensional manifestation of "strings" of elementary particles vibrating and dancing through multiple dimensions of reality, like shadows on a wall. In theory, these extra dimensions surround us and contain myriad parallel universes. Nova's "The Elegant Universe" used Matrix-like computer animation to convincingly visualize these hidden dimensions.
Sounds neat, huh—almost too neat? Krauss' book is subtitled The Mysterious Allure of Extra Dimensions as a polite way of saying String Theory Is for Suckers. String theory, he explains, has a catch: Unlike relativity and quantum mechanics, it can't be tested. That is, no one has been able to devise a feasible experiment for which string theory predicts measurable results any different from what the current wisdom already says would happen. Scientific Method 101 says that if you can't run a test that might disprove your theory, you can't claim it as fact. When I asked physicists like Nobel Prize-winner Frank Wilczek and string theory superstar Edward Witten for ideas about how to prove string theory, they typically began with scenarios like, "Let's say we had a particle accelerator the size of the Milky Way …" Wilczek said strings aren't a theory, but rather a search for a theory. Witten bluntly added, "We don't yet understand the core idea."
If stringers admit that they're only theorizing about a theory, why is Krauss going after them? He dances around the topic until the final page of his book, when he finally admits, "Perhaps I am oversensitive on this subject … " Then he slips into passive-voice scientist-speak. But here's what he's trying to say: No matter how elegant a theory is, it's a baloney sandwich until it survives real-world testing.
Krauss should know. He spent the 1980s proposing formulas that worked on a chalkboard but not in the lab. He finally made his name in the '90s when astronomers' observations confirmed his seemingly outlandish theory that most of the energy in the universe resides in empty space. Now Krauss' field of theoretical physics is overrun with theorists freed from the shackles of experimental proof. The string theorists blithely create mathematical models positing that the universe we observe is just one of an infinite number of possible universes that coexist in dimensions we can't perceive. And there's no way to prove them wrong in our lifetime. That's not a Theory of Everything, it's a Theory of Anything, sold with whizzy PBS special effects.
It's not just scientists like Krauss who stand to lose from this; it's all of us. Einstein's theories paved the way for nuclear power. Quantum mechanics spawned the transistor and the computer chip. What if 21st-century physicists refuse to deliver anything solid without a galaxy-sized accelerator? "String theory is textbook post-modernism fueled by irresponsible expenditures of money," Nobel Prize-winner Robert Laughlin griped to the San Francisco Chronicle earlier this year.
Krauss' book won't turn that tide. Hiding in the Mirror does a much better job of explaining string theory than discrediting it. Krauss knows he's right, but every time he comes close to the kill he stops to make nice with his colleagues. Last year, Krauss told a New York Times reporter that string theory was "a colossal failure." Now he writes that the Times quoted him "out of context." In spite of himself, he has internalized the postmodern jargon. Goodbye, Department of Physics. Hello, String Studies.
EVOLUTIONARY BIOLOGY... on Fox News?!
Professor PZ Myers blogs @Pharyngula:
...It sounds scary, but after a shaky beginning, it actually isn't bad. The shaky part is that it starts with Darwin's just-so story of whale evolution, a poor and nowadays rather erroneous bit of speculation that wasn't very well supported at all. After that, though, it gets into the good, modern evidence for whale evolution, and is unambiguously supportive of science.
Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection is one of the best substantiated theories in the history of science, supported by evidence from a wide variety of scientific disciplines, including paleontology, geology, genetics and developmental biology.
Fox News has taken one small step into the twentieth century.
MERRY SOLSTICE - OR HAPPY CHRISTMAHANUKKAWAANZA - if you prefer!!
Over @ Pooflingers blog a guy named "Matt" takes note of the Dali Lama's speech at the 2005 Society for Neuroscience convention in Washington, D.C.: "A few of the things he said at the conference seem to show that he sides with reasoned inquiry, rather than religious dogma." The Dali Lama is a non-theistic Tibetan Buddhist. He said:
To Buddhists, skepticism and an open mind is also important, required [in order] to have true investigation into reality. If you blindly accept, you don’t reach reality. Buddha said many things, but always encouraged empirical investigation, using your mind to see reality. It then developed in Buddhist tradition as a custom to examine his words and find those that contradict empirical evidence, and interpret them as less…definitive...
I'm doing some research for a new book... mulling over the fairly well known relationship between Plato's idea of the tripartite soul and Freud's theoretical framework for understanding our mind.
Plato, in his most famous dialog -- the Republic -- thought that the human "soul" (we would say mind) is made of three parts: the appetitive soul is where our basic desires (food, sex, etc.) originate from; the rational soul is the seat of our (alleged) rational abilities; the third part, what Plato called the spirited soul, was supposed to be sort of an intermediary between the two, where moral reasoning occurs (for Plato moral judgment is neither an instinct, like the search for food and sex, nor a province of exclusive rational thinking).
Freud, in turn, built his system around the comparable ideas of the id (analogous to the appetitive soul), the ego (the rational part of the mind), and their intermediary, the so-called superego, which plays much the same role as Plato's spirited soul.
Interestingly, for both Plato and Freud, trouble in the human soul/mind arises when the three parts don't work in harmony with each other. Plato thought that the key to such harmonious relationship was to yield control to the rational soul -- after all, he was the founder of the rationalist program in philosophy. Freud, on the other hand, concentrated on dealing with the id by means of psychoanalytical techniques.
I'm not suggesting that either theory gets it precisely right, but it is interesting to note that modern neurobiologists such as Antonio Damasio (see his delightfully written The Feeling of What Happens) also submit that the proper balance in a functional human being is achieved when we recognize the importance of emotions and "appetites" in human nature. For Damasio the rational brain is important, but in a different sense from what Plato intended. Rationality may be -- as Aristotle maintained -- what distinguishes us from most other animals, but it is futile to attempt to put it in complete control of things. Our emotions and feelings are simply too powerful, and they, not rationality, give us a "reason" to do anything at all. (Remember David Hume, when he said that "reason is and ought to be the slave of passions.")
Rationality, according to Damasio, ought to be used to balance the emotions, so that a functional human being can derive her ends from what she cares for and her means from working out the smartest way to achieve them. Sounds to me like a nice enough synthesis of Plato and Freud via Hume, and a sensible model of human happiness.
This is a tough one, though I'm sure some regulars of this blog will have ready-made answers for the conundrum. A recent New York Times article by Amy Harmon has highlighted an ethically controversial side of prenatal genetic screening. One might think that prenatal screening for all sorts of genetic defects would be an unqualified good, except perhaps for the potential misuse of such information by health insurance companies.
But while insurance companies' access and use of test results can be legislated or kept in check using current privacy laws, it is far more difficult to tackle the thorny issue of what the parents are going to do with such information. The data are clear: parents opt for abortion in proportion to the severity of the handicap that their unborn child would have to bear in life. For example, a study of 53,000 women's choices found that prenatally screened conditions that were classified as having no impact on the quality of the adult's life lead to about 1% termination (presumably from distrust of the actual risks involved), but those conditions judged to have a serious impact led to a 50% abortion rate. Moreover, women were more likely to choose abortion if the disability was of a type that impacts cognitive functions, for example 80% termination in the case of Down syndrome.
This is what's making advocacy groups for disabled people rather nervous, with some groups -- like the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation -- going as far as not advocating prenatal screening. The objections raised to the screening procedure range from rather paranoid worries that one begins with the fetus and then proceeds to "take care" of the adults, to more reasonable positions that include the possibility of curtailed funding for research on treatments, to borderline issues concerned with the increasing isolation of handicapped people once a particular genetic disease is stamped. (Sorry to be politically incorrect here, but I really find it hard to use words like "differently able." These are people in need of both medical and psychological help, not simply variations on the normal human condition.)
The reality is that prenatal screening is going to spread as it becomes cheaper, and it would be disingenuous to think that parents are not going to make decisions based on the results they obtain. As usual, the question is one of fuzzy boundaries separating obviously positive aspects of the issue from the clearly detrimental ones. For example, the NYT article quotes Mark A. Rothstein, director of the Bioethics Institute at the University of Louisville School of Medicine, as asking "Where do you draw the line? On the one hand we have to view this as a positive in terms of preventing disability and illness. But at what point are we engaging in eugenics and not accepting the normal diversity within a population?"